James B. Allen: Master Parliamentarian and Forgotten Conservative Leader

By 1968, Alabama was thoroughly transformed from what it was ten years ago politically. Not only could Republicans compete in the state, the state’s Democrats became much more conservative in the wake of the civil rights movement. This was reflected by the rise of George Wallace to the governorship in the 1962 election and the rightward shift of its two senators, Lister Hill and John J. Sparkman. They had at one time been loyal to Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal. Hill, who had come close to losing reelection to a Republican in 1962, was not up for another term and in his place came a far more conservative Democrat in James Browning Allen (1912-1978).

Allen had twice served as Alabama’s lieutenant governor: 1951-1955, and under George Wallace from 1963 to 1967. To win the election he first had to contend with Congressman Armistead I. Selden Jr., another conservative Democrat who was endorsed by Hill. Allen was able to effectively paint him as a Washington insider and won. He won the general election with 70% of the vote.

Allen was, like his ally George Wallace, a segregationist as he had urged rejection of federal education funds to avoid desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education but unlike him he was not a demagogue who indulged in white supremacist rhetoric and had a strong legalistic mind. While Wallace was outspoken, Allen was shy. Despite this, he made such a mark on the Senate in his time with his knowledge and mastery of the rules that Senator Sam Ervin said of him that if he had “to stand with one man at Armageddon and battle for the Lord” he would choose Allen (Farber). He often led in opposition to key liberal issues, such as postcard voter registration, campaign finance legislation, and busing. Only four years after first taking office, The New York Times acknowledged his skill in holding up the business that the Senate liberals wanted. Although liberal Democrats, such as Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana, criticized his practices as abusing the rules and obstruction, Allen held that “To debate and discuss can’t do anything but good” (Farber). However, there was also admiration from the liberal side. None other than Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) judged him to be “perhaps the greatest parliamentarian ever to sit in the United States Senate” (Farber). In 1975, he battled as best he could against Senators Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) and James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) in their successful effort to reduce the margin for ending a filibuster from 2/3’s to 3/5’s majority.

Allen continued to lead on issues throughout the 1970s, including against pay increases for legislators while the American people were chafing under inflation and against the New York City bailout. On the latter, he stated opposition to “city slickers from New York calling on their country cousins for help” (Farber). Although Allen often was a block to legislation, sometimes he added constructive amendments, such as in 1973 when he added an amendment permitting the purchase of plants and seeds with food stamps, reasoning that if people got additional means to feed themselves it would reduce dependence on the government, through sale or consumption.

Although Southern support for de jure segregation ended definitively in the 1970s with George Wallace’s dropping of the issue, Allen, as far as I’ve found, never made a clear break from his segregationist past. In 1975, he fought the extension of the Voting Rights Act and in 1977 he was one of four senators to vote against funding the Civil Rights Commission.  His final battle was against the Panama Canal Treaty, but he was unable to persist in his leadership here as he died of a heart attack on June 1, 1978. His death at 65, in retrospect, was far from surprising. A 1973 article in The New York Times on him noted “his love for Southern cooking and his aversion to health foods and exercise fads” as well as his affinity for burgers and ice cream (Delaney). The leadership against the treaty ultimately passed on to the capable Paul Laxalt of Nevada.  Although succeeded by his widow, Maryon, she lost the 1978 primary to the far more liberal Donald W. Stewart.

Allen, who had a lifetime MC-Index score of 85%, is today a forgotten figure despite his S-tier parliamentary skills, largely a product of his 1978 death. Had he lived into the Reagan years, he may be more remembered. However, it turns out Allen had a protege…Jesse Helms of North Carolina. He had taken him under his wing during his first term and he would follow in his stead as the conservative rules master, bedeviling the aims of liberal politicians and of both Republican and Democratic presidents on State Department nominees until his 2003 retirement.


Delaney, P. (1973, December 3). Filibuster’s Leader James Browning Allen. The New York Times.

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Farber, M.A. (1978, June 2). Senator James B. Allen Dies; Alabamian Led Canal Pact Fight. The New York Times.

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History. SNAP Gardens.

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Senator Tells of Bid to Kill Congress Pay Rise Moves. (1973, July 21). The New York Times.

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Watson, E.L. (2010, November 9). James B. Allen. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

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