1990 Profile in Courage Award recipient Carl Elliott, Sr. with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Caroline Kennedy, May 29, 1990.

Background

Carl Elliott, a former United States Congressman from Jasper, Alabama, was honored for his participation in the passage of the historic National Defense Education Act of 1958, which made a college education accessible to all, regardless of race or economic status.

Congressman Elliott persevered despite the fact that his stands were anathemas in the conservative climate of Alabama at the time. Ultimately, they cost him his career. Soon after receiving the Profile in Courage Award in 1990, he used a portion of his prize money to complete his memoirs. His book, The Cost of Courage: The Journey of an American Congressman, was published in January 1992. He died in 1999.

Former Congressman Carl A. Elliott of Alabama demonstrated the true meaning of political courage when in the tumultuous decades of the 50's and 60's his abiding loyalty to the nation and human rights triumphed over all personal and political considerations and put his political career at great risk.

He worked tirelessly to enact legislation for the good of the nation on issues such as civil rights and federally funded education, which were anathema in the reactionary political climate of Alabama at the time.

His reward for his courageous work was repudiation, defeat and financial ruin. Like many of the leaders described in President John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Elliott has never been vindicated by a return to popularity.

In 1930, Elliott left his hometown of Franklin, Alabama with $2.30 in his pocket to attend the University of Alabama. During the Depression, he worked his way through college by waiting on tables, keeping the campus furnace going and working the grounds crew. He was elected president of the student body and emerged from the University with undergraduate and law degrees, the first member of his family to graduate from college.

In 1948, Carl Elliott was elected to the United States House of Representatives, two years after President Kennedy was first elected to the House. His ensuing years of service, until 1965, resulted in his championing efforts on behalf of equal rights for minorities and the poor, including courageous struggles for the passage of legislation which eventually cost him his career.

Perhaps because of his own early struggles to educate himself, Elliott dedicated himself to improving the quality of education and making it accessible to all Americans without regard to race or financial constraints. To this end, Elliott and his Alabama colleague in the Senate, Lister Hill, gained enactment of the National Defense Education Act in 1958. Also known as the Hill-Elliott Act, this historic measure opened educational opportunities for Americans of all economic backgrounds. By 1965, more than 750,000 students had benefitted from the passage of the act.

The NDEA was an impressive achievement. It had been opposed by key House leaders, including the Chairmen of the Education and Labor Committee and the House Rules Committee, as well as the House Republican Floor Leader.

Opposition to Federal aid was particularly strong in the South, where segregationists feared it would provide an avenue to implement the Supreme Court's decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Although Elliott's successful effort was a critical turning point in the American educational movement, for him it was a major career risk which proved responsible for his future political defeats.

While serving in Congress, Elliott was appointed to the newly enlarged House Rules Committee as the critical swing vote to get social reforms past the committee, then headed by a reactionary chairman. Elliott's appointment to the Rules Committee and his role in social reforms made him the target of vicious criticism from reactionaries of both parties.

Following the 1960 census, Alabama's representation in the House was reduced from nine to eight members. Soon after, the Wallace controlled Legislature mandated that all Congressional candidates run at large instead of in their traditional Congressional districts. Because of this, in 1964, Elliott lost the nine-eight statewide race for Congress, in which voters had to vote out one representative. Reactionaries targeted Elliott for defeat and used the technique of distributing sample ballots excluding his name. His advocacy of Federal aid to education, his key votes on the Rules Committee and his ongoing leadership role in social and racial reforms had threatened his opponents too much.

Elliott next looked toward the governorship as a means of bringing about critically needed change in Alabama. At a time when the Confederate battle flag had become an accepted political symbol for most candidates in Alabama, Elliott campaigned across the state from a flatbed truck with the American flag as his only back drop.

Once again, Elliott was forced to pay the price for his opposition to racism. He was defeated by the stand-in ticket for Governor Wallace, who by law could not succeed himself and whose wife ran instead. This election left Elliott with heavy financial debts, which he is still paying off.

In Profiles in Courage, President John F. Kennedy described courageous political leaders as those who are "more than a mere collection of robots dutifully recording the views of their constituents, or a gathering of time servers skilled only in predicting and following the tides of public sentiment..."

Carl Elliott was never a follower. He is a powerful voice of change and determination whose loyalty to the ideals of this country surpasses all personal and political considerations. He is a living profile in courage.