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Opinion | The legend of Sen. John Sparkman

John Sparkman was a giant in the United States Senate and an icon in Alabama political history.

Sen. John J. Sparkman

In my 2015 book, Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories, I have a Chapter entitled “Alabama’s Three Greatest Senators.” I chronicle the lives and accomplishments of Richard Shelby, Lister Hill and John Sparkman. Last week we gave you the history of Lister Hill. This week we will give you a brief story of the legacy of the great John Sparkman.

Hill and Sparkman served as a tandem in Washington for more than 20 years and were respected giants on Capitol Hill. Our Hill-Sparkman team was unsurpassed in power and prestige from 1946 to 1970. They were admired, not only in Alabama and the South, but throughout the nation. They were powerful and extremely effective for our state, but also portrayed a good image as erudite southern gentlemen.

John Sparkman served an amazing 32 years in the United States Senate from 1946 through 1978. He served 12 years in the U.S. Congress from Huntsville and the Tennessee Valley, prior to being elected to the Senate. He made his presence known as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which at the time oversaw housing for America. Furthermore, he was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1952.

John Sparkman is the Father of the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. His legacy lives on today with the growth and aerospace prominence of our Rocket City. Our fastest growing and most economically prosperous metropolitan area began its presence in the 1960s because of John Sparkman. In fact, the city should probably be referred to as Sparkmanville rather than Huntsville.

Senator Sparkman was not born into privilege like Senator Hill. Sparkman was born and raised on an unpretentious tenant farm near Hartselle in Morgan County. He had 10 brothers and sisters. In 1917, by making a cotton crop and netting $75.00 he was able to enroll in the University of Alabama. At Alabama he was editor of the “Crimson and White” and like Senator Hill, he was elected President of the Student Body at the Capstone. At the same time, he worked his way through school shoveling coal and feeding furnaces.

After graduation from the University of Alabama School of Law, he practiced law in Huntsville for 12 years before being elected to Congress in 1936. Like Hill, he supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority (“TVA”) Act was a tremendous boost for his North Alabama Tennessee Valley district. The TVA Act transformed North Alabama.

In 1946, he had served his North Alabama congressional district well for over a decade and was elected to the U.S. Senate. Senator John Bankhead had died in office and Sparkman won the seat handily with strong backing of labor unions who were in their heyday in Alabama politics.

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Senator Sparkman rose to power and prominence in the Senate. He made his mark as the father of federal housing for the poor. He became Chairman of the very powerful Senate Banking Committee, as well as its Housing Subcommittee. Sparkman was the author of practically every major housing bill since World War II, and is also known as the father of the Small Business Administration. He was also the ranking majority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

For more than two decades, John Sparkman and Lister Hill served together as a team, the most powerful and respected tandem in Washington. While some Southern Senators were making racist speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Hill and Sparkman refused to race bait. They preferred to quietly bring home the bacon to Alabama with dignity. They had a team approach to helping Alabama and their voting records on major issues, which faced the nation, were identical.

Both men served as president of the student body of the University of Alabama, and both were products of what is known as the political machine at the University of Alabama. 

John Sparkman was a giant in the United States Senate and an icon 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 state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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