Three years ago, Jim Martin passed away in Gadsden at 99 years old. His beloved wife of 60 years, Pat, was by his side. He was a true Christian gentleman. Jim was one of the Fathers of the modern Republican Party in the south.
In 1962, John Kennedy was President. Camelot was in full bloom. The Congress was controlled by Democrats only because the south was solidly Democratic. The southern bloc of senators and congressmen were all Democrats. Because of their enormous seniority, they controlled both houses of Congress.
The issue of Civil Rights was a tempest set to blow off the Capitol dome. Kennedy was under intense pressure to pass major Civil Rights legislation. However, he was up against a stonewall to get it through the powerful bloc of southern senators.
Race was the only issue in the south, especially in Alabama. George Wallace was riding the race issue to the Governor’s office for his first term. The white southern voter was determined to stand firm against integration and was poised to cast their vote for the most ardent segregationists on the ballot.
Our Congressional delegation was Democratic, all eight Congressmen and both Senators. Our tandem of John Sparkman and Lister Hill had a combined 40-years of service.
Lister Hill had gone to the U.S. Senate in 1938. He had served four six-year terms and had become a national celebrity in his 24 years in the Senate. He was up for election for his fifth six-year term. It was expected to be a coronation. Senator Hill was reserved, aristocratic, and almost felt as if he was above campaigning. He was also soft on the race issue. He was a progressive who refused race-bait.
Out of nowhere a handsome, articulate, young Gadsden businessman, Jim Martin, appeared on the scene. Martin was 42, a decorated World War II officer, who fought with Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe. He entered as a private and became an integral part of Patton’s team, rising to the rank of Major. After the war Martin went to work for Amoco Oil and married a Miss Alabama – Pat Huddleston from Clanton. They then settled in Gadsden and he bought an oil distributorship and became successful in business. He was a business Republican and became active in the State Chamber of Commerce. When the State Chamber Board went to Washington to visit the Congressional delegation, they were treated rudely by our Democratic delegates, who were still voting their progressive New Deal, pro union philosophy.
Martin left Washington and decided that Alabama at least needed a two-party system and that he would be the sacrificial lamb to take on the venerable Lister Hill as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. Martin got the nomination in a convention and the David vs. Goliath race was on. By late summer the big city newspapers could feel that Martin had some momentum. He was being perceived as the conservative and Hill as the liberal.
Every Alabama courthouse was Democratic, all sheriffs, Probate Judges, as well as all statewide elected officials. It was hard to imagine that the tradition of voting Democratic would change, but the winds of segregation were strong. When the votes were counted in November of 1962, Martin had pulled off the biggest upset in the nation. NBC’s team of Huntley and Brinkley reported the phenomenon on the nightly news. Republican President Eisenhower called Martin to congratulate him. However, things were happening in rural North Alabama. Martin had won by 6,000 votes but three days later, mysterious boxes appeared with just enough votes to give Hill the belated victory. The entire country and most Alabamians knew that Jim Martin had been counted out.
Jim Martin would have been the first Republican Senator from the south in a century. Some people speculate that he would have been the vice-presidential candidate with Richard Nixon in 1968. Regardless, Martin was the John the Baptist of the Southern Republican sweep of 1964, and father of the modern Republican Party in Alabama.
That 1962 Senate race was a precursor of what was to come two years later. Jim Martin was one of five Republicans swept into Congress in the 1964 Goldwater landslide. He probably would have won the U.S. Senate seat of John Sparkman in 1966. However, Martin chose to run for governor against Lurleen Wallace.
In 1987, Martin became Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. As Commissioner, Martin helped create the Forever Wild land preservation program. Jim Martin has a special place in Alabama political history.
See you next week.
— Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the Alabama legislature.