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Skip Tucker: Carl Atwood Elliott: Here’s a book, and please share the hemlock

The late great U.S. Rep. Carl Elliott, D-Jasper, in 1950 commissioned a Congressional Study which found there is (or was) coal under every inch of  Walker County. It was full of coal and those who mined it.

Some coal mines also are full of pockets of odorless, deadly methane gas, so Back in the Day miners carried canaries into gassy mines. If miners were in a bad place, the canary’s job was to keel over, warning people that something was wrong. Good for miners, bad for canaries.

Deep thinkers – wise people – like Carl Elliott serve as society’s canary. They alert people that something is wrong. The problem is that so many of them have to keel over.

Two people who had to keel over were much alike, about 3,500 years apart. Socrates was murdered in 399 BC, Carl died a lingering death in 1999. He was killed, too, after a fashion.

Last week, I compared Robert F. Kennedy to a clean, powerful river (he too was a wise man who was murdered). And I said I’d write this week about my friend, Carl Elliott.  If Kennedy was a river, Carl was a mountain, 6’4.5” of him.

I reckon RFK was a genius, which encompasses wisdom, in my view, and so was Socrates and so was Carl.

I’m going to paraphrase a lot. When the Senate was busily condemning Socrates to death, a member asked him, in effect, what made him think he was so wise. Socrates said, “I’m not wise, but I’m amazed at how many are less wise than I.” And when the Senators told him he was condemned to death, he sort of shrugged and said, “So are you.”

So they made him drink hemlock, which he sort of said wasn’t so bad, as poisons go. He was in his cell with his acolyte Crito and, when he felt the hemlock kick in, he sort of disinterestedly described it. (To show just how poor Socrates was when he died, among his final words was a request to Crito to repay a man a chicken he owed.)

Crito finally blurted, “Master, may I have the honor of burying you?”

Socrates, who believed in the eternal soul, said, “Crito, you can if you can catch me.”

Carl closed out his days, at 85 (15 years older than Socrates), in much the same manner, almost destitute but with a calm acceptance, serene in a life well accomplished, knowing something better awaited than the bitter fate that took him. Not that he was bitter, though he had most everything wrung from him by mortals most sleazy.

Carl’s philosophy (he read two books a week, either biography or philosophy), was “play the hand you’re dealt.” A malevolent fate, seemingly sentient, stalked him and his family. Listen. Carl Elliott served his nation wisely and well for eight consecutive terms, 1949 until 1965. If luck had gone for him the way it did against him, he might’ve been president.

He was raised on a tenant farm in Vina, Ala., the difference between tenant farming and sharecropping being that the tenant farmer owned his land, rather than being allowed just to live and farm it, and sold or bartered his crops. Sharecroppers worked another person’s land and shared it.

The main tenet for Socrates (and then Plato and Aristotle and Sigmund Freud) was “know thyself.” Carl did, early.

When he was 3, Carl’s father took him to hear political stump speeches by folks like William Bankhead or Cotton Tom Heflin. The first time he heard them promise crowds of needy people they would help them, he told his dad, “That’s what I’m going to be.”

He knew early on he’d have to become an attorney, and he knew he had to go to the University of Alabama to do it. No Elliott had been to college, though his dad went to pains to make sure they graduated high school…all nine of them (all, due to Carl’s example, eventually graduated through college). The family believed in him, though most everyone scoffed.

Carl’s son John, my best friend dead these 25 years (I named my son, 13, Elliott) told me this story:

“Papa went to see a lawyer in Russellville who was rumored to help local kids who wanted to go to college. Papa never asked for much, but he went to see if it was true. The lawyers said it had been true but everyone he helped went down and wasted the opportunity. Papa didn’t say, well, I’ll be different. He shook the man’s hand and left. Later that afternoon, a friend to the lawyer came in.” Here’s how it went from there:

“You know that big ole Elliott boy from over in Vina?” the friend said.

The lawyer said, “He hasn’t been gone out of here a half-hour. Why?”

“I just passed him on the road. He said he’s walking to Tuscaloosa to go to school.”

According to John, the lawyer got his hat, closed the office, and went to find Carl.

I don’t know if or how he helped, except maybe to give him a ride. I do know that Carl Elliott, 16, soon arrived in Tuscaloosa with $2.30 in the pocket of his worn overalls. He arrived on campus in 1930, about the time Denny Chimes did, and he went to see Dr. George Denny, university president, to see about becoming one of about 4,500 students. Few of the students were poor.  Dr. Denny noted that.

By the time the persuasive Mr. Elliott left Denny’s office, he was in school. Denny hired him to be campus handyman, groundskeeper, coal stoker, shrub trimmer and allowed him to live in the abandoned observatory building which had neither electricity nor running water. There is a plaque commemorating that fact standing next to the observatory today.

Carl waited tables, shined shoes, studied hard and never lost sight of his dream. He learned the art of law and the science of politics. He was elected president of the Student Government Association, the first candidate to defeat The Machine, a fraternity/sorority-led campus political coalition. A couple of pictures from the day show his holistic growth. The first, early days, shows him in threadbare overalls with a shovel in his hand, the next shows a sophisticated young man who owned law books, a law degree and a determination to make the world a better place for the very people he had come from. Poor people.

Lenora Elliott Cannon said, “Every piece of legislation Papa ever worked for was meant to give poor people a chance at having things he didn’t have when he was growing up.”

One of those things was books. As a young man, Carl would walk a couple of miles to borrow books from a neighbor. He’d return them and get two more.

Carl told me once that a book lives longer than anything man ever built. Carl read books, studied them and wrote them.

By the time he left the U.S. Congress, he’d authored and passed one of the most important pieces of legislation ever to come out of those hallowed halls: the National Defense Education Act. It served and serves as the basis for funding for libraries and bookmobiles.

Anyone who has gotten a book from a library has, in large part, Carl Elliott to thank.

Thank you, Carl.

Er, also, July 2, around the corner, is the deadline to register to vote. Carl would thank you for doing that.

(Next week: Mr. Elliott Goes to Washington, does great things, and comes home to face a Machine far more daunting than the one he beat on campus.)

Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War.


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