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Steve Flowers: Lister Hill, one of Alabama’s greatest U.S. Senators

We had a very distinguished congressional delegation from Alabama during the 30-year span of 1934-1964. 

The congressmen from the Heart of Dixie appeared to be born to serve in Congress.  Their pedigrees were all similar. They had pretty much been born and raised in the town that they would eventually represent in Congress. Almost all had gone to the University of Alabama for their education and most had graduated from Alabama’s Law School. While at the Capstone, most had been members of Greek fraternities.  

In addition to their Greek fraternal affiliation, they were politically active at the Capstone and also belonged to a mystic political fraternity known as “The Machine.” This group was basically a political party that was made up of the fraternities on campus. It was well organized with secret endorsements made up of the fraternity candidates and the endorsements were only revealed the day before the election. 

The fraternity candidates very rarely lost. It is a legendary political training ground and almost every member of Congress during this era was a product of “The Machine.”

After college and law school, these men served a stint in the military. Service in a World War and then membership in the VFW seemed to be a necessity for a political career. 

Alabamians have always had an affinity for folks who served their country and came home after the war to begin a perfunctory law practice that occupied them until the congressional seat they had been preparing for came open.

Once they were elected, they planned on staying there. After all, they figured that a congressional career was what they were born for. They adhered to the adage attributed to many a southern congressman.

It was said many times by the solons from the south as they played poker in the cloakroom of the House or Senate, “I love being in Congress and the only way I will leave will be by the ballot box or in a pine box,” and usually it was the latter.

The person, who most perfectly epitomized this prototypical congressman and senator of this era, was the legendary Lister Hill of Montgomery. He was both a congressman and a senator. He was elected to Congress at age 28 and served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938, where he served Alabama with distinction for 30 years. 

Hill had been born into privilege. He was the son of Dr. Luther Hill. His father was one of the first American surgeons to successfully suture the human heart. Hoping that their son would follow his father into medicine, the parents named Joseph Lister after the famous European physician, who was the first doctor to advocate and practice use of antiseptics.

Young Lister Hill decided one day, after watching his father operate, that he would not be a doctor. He actually fainted from the sight of blood. 

The Hill family was very prominent politically in Montgomery. In fact, at this time there were two political families who were like political parties. You had to run in Montgomery as either a candidate of the Hill family or the Gunter family.

Lister set his sights on politics at an early age, probably dreamed of and maybe expected to be a U.S. senator. He entered the University of Alabama at age 16 and became the first student government president at the university. He also was the founder of the aforementioned “Machine.” He was elected to Congress at 28 and served with distinction.  He served in the U.S. House for 16 years and rose to be chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee. He was instrumental in getting the Maxwell-Gunter military complex in Montgomery.

Senator Hill had a hand in most major national legislation from 1938 to 1968.  However, his greatest legacy was in the field of Public Health. The great medical center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is because of Lister Hill. Probably the best-known legislation he was known for was the Hill-Burton Act. Through this 1946 Act, most of the rural hospitals in America and Alabama were built.

Lister Hill is without question one of our state’s greatest U.S. senators.

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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