As Civil Rights legislation was clearing Congress in the 1960s, the Southern caucus would prove stubborn holdouts. Members who signed the “Southern Manifesto” fought tooth and nail against any and all legislation designed to advance racial progress. But evidence exists that at least a couple of those Senators didn’t really believe what they were preaching, that they were simply going along because they feared the consequences of even hinting they might be in favor of racial harmony.
Footnotes show that at least one even made secret deals, promises, etc with African-Americans in exchange for a promise to back Civil Rights if the stars aligned. Two such Senator’s were John Sparkman, the longtime Alabama Senator who made the national ticket as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1952. Another was his senior colleague, the venerable Lister Hill who nominated FDR for a third term in 1940 and who, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, had Jewish blood. Both were populists; economic liberals beloved by labor who apparently favored progress for all — and who apparently only voted on civil rights issues because they had to.
To be clear, the majority of the Senators who signed the “Southern Manifesto” were not just doing it for political convenience. Most were hard core racists. South Carolina’s Olin Johnston once declined an invitation to a dinner party because his wife would have to sit next to a black man. Harry Byrd, Jim Eastland, and Allen Ellender in particular were singled out by Robert Caro in “Master of the Senate” for being anti-black. Even John Stennis and Herman Talmadge weren’t particularly inclusive even their heart. But others, including Fulbright and Louisiana’s Russell Long, simply refused to stand up to the times. But Alabama’s two Senators offered the most interesting case sudy.
The New York Times referred to Sparkman as “a burly, 6-foot, ruddy-faced man with white hair and a jolly disposition.” He was called “the Senate’s only Cherub.” Sparkman could not have had racial animosity. Paul Douglas, among the most prominent backers of Civil Rights was prepared to nominate Sparkman for the position of Majority Whip in 1950. Sparkman promptly disavowed interest and the post went to a freshman Texas Senator named Lyndon Johnson. And Truman had suggested to Stevenson that he pick Sparkman as his running mate.
Sparkman’s selection was a marriage that Stevenson, himself not vocal on the issue of rights at that point, had made because he needed the deep south in his already uphill battle with Ike. And it provoked backlash with northern African-Americans.
Adam Clayton Powell, the New York Congressman said “we may have but they can’t make us vote for him.” Powell apparently made good on his threat. He reportedly backed Eisenhower.
On matters other than Civil Rights, Sparkman and Hill were national Democrats. Even in the midst of the Civil Rights era, Sparkman would stick with his party. He backed nearly piece of the “Great Society.” It was Sparkman who sponsored legislation that would extend low-income housing in the 1950’s. Hill sponsored the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
One day, Lyman Johnson, in his book, “The Race of the Dream,’ details a meeting he had with Sparkman. Johnson had been taking heat for actively backing the Stevenson ticket with Sparkman on it. Friends had told him that the vice-presidential candidate was going to be in town and told him to join them and meet him. Johnson had little interest. But his friends persuaded him to go and, one by one, the five white folks that were with him ditched the room, leaving Johnson alone with Sparkman. It didn’t take long for John son to realize that this was a set-up so “I could tell him the problems blacks were having in supporting him.”
Johnson addressed Sparkman as “Mr. Senator,” at which point Sparkman told him to “Call me John.” Johnson obliged and proceeded to tell him of the problems his friends had reconciling his decision to support Sparkman, even saying the perception was “he’s a racist.” Sparkman sai, ‘I’ve got to do what the white voters in Alabama say for me to do. As long as I’m at the mercy of the present votes in Alabama..I’ve got to run on a white supremacy platform.” But Sparkman also said, “Help me get out of Alabama, and I’ll be another Hugo Black. Leave me in Alabama, and I can’t do any good. I’ll have to do what will get me back in the Senate.” That’s hardly a profile in courage. In fact, it’s political cowardice, pure and simple.
As expected, the ticket lost big but Sparkman continued in the Senate.
When the Nixon presidency took shape, Sparkman used the “Southern Strategy” for political advantage as well. He opposed busing. Sparkman faced a serious challenge for re-election in the primary. State Auditor Melba Til Allen. Three candidates combined came within 1,000 votes of forcing Sparkman into a runoff, but he did take the 50% necessary.
The general was expected to be close but Sparkman would remind voters at each campaign stop what he had done for the respective county he was in. took an unexpectedly robust 61%. In 1974, many bankers funneled money to Bill Fulbright’s campaign, petrified that a loss in the primary would make Bill Proxmire Chairman of Banking. Fulbright lost and Sparkman did go to Foreign Relations. In comparison to Bill Fulbright, many viewed Sparkman as lacking the energy or desire to take on the Executive Branch. And many viewed his age as an impediment.
For Sparkman, the rose to the top was long and hard. He grew up dirt poor. He’d study by a kerosene light, walk four miles to school and ultimately put himself through college by a $75 loan on a cotton crop. The Times said he, “then got a job tending furnaces that paid $4.20 a week.”
Sparkman’s longtime Alabama colleague was another member who may have been pro-Civil Rights in his heart. If Sparkman struggled through his early life, Hill was born fortunate. His father was a prominent physician in Montgomery, who would become renowned for various experiments on the human heart and discovered antiseptic. It fueled his son’s lifelong advocacy for advances in the medical field, which he’d pursue legislatively. Hill would attend the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School, then return home to Alabama.
Hill went to a Methodist church but was raised Catholic and his mother was part Jewish (Hill wouldn’t let that be known).
Background aside, Sparkman and Hill were two peas in a pod. The Encyclopedia of Alabama notes the Hill machine convinced Alabama’s overwhelmingly white electorate to vote based on their economic needs; as a result, Alabama was often described as the most liberal state in the Deep South” and notes a study ranked the duo as the “fourth most effective” in the Senate.
Hill was a legend of his time. He won a House seat in 1922 and by the 30’s, was a loyal “New Dealer.” It was Hill who sponsored the legislation establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority. He went to the Senate in 1938, when Hugo Black’s appointment to the Supreme Court created an opening. Despite the difference on the rights issue, Black and Hill would become lifelong friends.
The Encyclopedia says that despite early talk of a Presidential bid, “Hill became a national laughingstock when a huge radio audience, as widely reported in the anti-Roosevelt press, jeered at his southern accent and florid oratory.” Still, his Senate career went far. He’d become Majority Whip and Chair the Labor and Public Welfare Committee. But his contribution in the medical field defines him. He was called a “statesman for health.” He sponsored the Hospital and Health Center Construction Act of 1946 the Hill-Burton Act 9,200 which created new hospitals, and legislation dealing with the mentally ill. His interest for rural progress, including electricity, telephone assistance, agriculture, and vocational assistance was also strong.
Hill’s opponent, Republican James Martin, pressed him unusually hard for a Republican in Alabama. called him a “Kennedycrat” Hill tried to use the administrations order of federal troops to the University of Mississippi to his advantage, issuing a fierce condemnation. The vote was so close that Hill at one point trailed slightly on Election night, but ultimately secured his fifth and final term by 9,000 votes.
It was by far the closest a Republican would come to seizing a Senate seat in the south since Reconstruction. Hill served that term and retired in 1968 at 74.
The New York Times described Hill as a politician “trapped by the racial history of [his] region…who [nevertheless] dared to be progressive on every issue except civil rights.” But he strongly backed other colleagues interests of all regions. Robert Kennedy asked Hill for a sub-committee Chairmanship on Indian Affairs and Hill obliged.
Sparkman retired in 1978 at 79 and died in 1985. He was proceeded in death by less than a year by Hill, whose death in December 1984 came eight days before his 90th birthday.
In closing, Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death.” He did not say, “If the right circumstances arise, I’ll be with you.” The voting records of Sparkman and Hill on Civil Rights were inexcusable. History may not be kind to them in that regard, nor should it be. But it’s comforting to know that talk is cheap and that, all things considered, they were cherubs in their heart.