John J. Sparkman – A Conflicted Progressive

The 1936 election produced a Congress that constituted the height of Democratic power in the 20th Century. One of the new members of the House was John J. Sparkman (1899-1985) of Alabama’s 8th district. He was a progressive who supported the New Deal, but like Southerners of his time, he had his limits. One of them was the willingness of the national Democratic Party to embrace strong labor unions. Although Sparkman had voted for legislation favorable to labor such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, he supported curbing wartime strikes through the Smith-Connally Act, which passed over President Roosevelt’s veto. By 1946, he had become a popular and effective member, resulting in him serving as House Majority Whip. Another opportunity opened for him as Senator John Bankhead passed away, and in the November election Sparkman was elected to the seat. Although he couldn’t campaign too close to President Truman because of his civil rights policies, he nonetheless proved staunchly loyal to his policies and played a major role in the passage of Administration-backed public housing legislation. He made exceptions by opposing civil rights and supporting Senator McCarran’s Internal Security Act. Sparkman also was a staunch opponent of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and in 1954 voted to censure him.

He Did Not Like Ike

In 1952, Sparkman was nominated for Vice President on the Democratic ticket, the last segregationist to be on the ticket of a major party. However, he did tell a black journalist that if elected, he would become “another Hugo Black” (Webb). Sparkman was suggesting, that like fellow Alabamian Black, his positions on race were motivated by catering to white voters of the state as opposed to personal belief.

In 1955, he condemned Eisenhower’s economic policies as “trickle-down economics” that favored bankers and business over the common people and staunchly opposed free market reforms to agriculture pushed by Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson. In 1956, Sparkman signed the Southern Manifesto expressing opposition to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and desegregation as did every member of Alabama’s delegation.

Space Travel and Senator Sparkman

Senator Sparkman was a staunch supporter of research into space flight and was instrumental in getting the proposed Marshall Space Flight Center to be located in Huntsville, Alabama. This was where for twenty years the famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun led development of missiles and the Saturn V rocket, which would for the send men to the moon for the first time in history.

Sparkman in the Sixties

The 1960s constituted a change for the nation and Sparkman was no exception. In the early 1960s he stood as a staunch supporter of the Kennedy Administration and helped pass the Housing Act of 1961, which expanded public housing. He also provided crucial support for LBJ’s Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, which provided federal grants to states for mass transit. However, Sparkman’s commitment to New Deal progressivism was waning: his Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA) score had been a 12% in the 87th Congress, but in 1969 he scored a 64%, and his record hit a conservative high in the following decade with a score of 80% in 1972. Sparkman’s turn rightward was motivated by three factors. First, his colleague and ideological compatriot Lister Hill was almost defeated for reelection in 1962 by a Republican, resulting in him declining another term. Second was the rising popularity of segregationist demagogue Governor George Wallace who frequently butted heads with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Third was his staunch hawkishness on the Vietnam War.

The Seventies and the End

Sparkman’s conservative turn largely proved temporary, as his conservatism waned after his 1972 reelection. In 1977, he became Alabama’s longest serving senator in history, a record that would not be beaten until March 3, 2019 by Republican Richard Shelby. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1975 to 1979, he backed the Carter Administration’s Panama Canal Treaties, which was met with furious conservative opposition. In his late seventies by this time, age had taxed Sparkman significantly and many observers thought his leadership of the committee to be lacking. Reading the writing on the wall, he retired from politics in 1979.

John J. Sparkman, whose federal career had started in the days of the Depression, ended in the days of disco, and aided in America’s debut with the Moon, died on November 16, 1985.


John J. Sparkman: A Featured Biography. U.S. Senate.

Retrieved from

Webb, S.L. John J. Sparkman. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Retrieved from


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