By GREG MARKLEY
In 1972, singer Jim Croce had a hit single called “You don’t mess around with Jim.” Lyrics were: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind; you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.” The song recounts the fate of Big Jim Walker and Willie Slim McCoy, an Alabamian, after a fight.
I thought of this song when I read about how Maryon Pittman Allen, the second woman to serve as a U.S. senator from Alabama, had her career short-circuited. It resulted from a too frank interview with a Washington Post writer she made shortly after her appointment to the Senate to replace her late husband Jim. She took on Gov. George Wallace and his second wife Cornelia.
“The worst thing a person can do is be a bore,” Allen told interviewer Sally Quinn. “That’s a cardinal sin. And they don’t know they’re bores. How can they not know? The Wallaces should shut up. It would be the Christian thing to do. Everybody in Alabama is getting tired of seeing those old dirty sheets flapping around on Perry Street.”
Allen was born in 1925 in Meridian, Mississippi, and had three siblings. Her family moved to Birmingham the next year and her father John founded a tractor dealership. At the University of Alabama (1944-47) she studied journalism and married Joshua Mullins; they raised three children but got divorced in 1959. Soon, she worked as an insurance agent. Later, she became a journalist and was women’s section editor for five local weeklies in Alabama.
The Washington post described Allen as “always, always feminine, sweet, and above all unthreatening.” Small and fragile looking, very elegant, she looks like a proper Southern lady, the account said.
Although Allen spent fewer than five months as U.S. senator, she was actively engaged there. Her most important vote in the Senate came in October 1978. She backed a proposal of Sen. Jake Garn (R.-UT) to allow any of the 35 states that had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment since it passed in 1972 to rescind their approval.
The Senate was also debating an extension of the ERA deadline to March 1979 to make available more time to approve the Act. Garn’s proposal failed by 54-44 and the extension for the ERA was successful. Allen attempted to carry out her husband’s legislative priorities and conservative approach.
Pundits expected that Gov. Wallace, term-limited, would challenge Allen for the Senate seat. Yet in 1978 he shocked supporters and pundits by declining to seek the Democratic nomination. This made Allen the favorite to gain a full six-year term. But her indiscreet remarks to media put a pox on her chances.
According to a WomenInCongress profile, “Allen later claimed the interviewer had distorted her comments, but the reaction in Alabama damaged her chances for election. Nevertheless, Senator Allen remained confident. She concentrated on her Senate duties and campaigned little before the Democratic primary of Sept. 5.”
Allen led the primary voting with 44%, but fell short of the outright majority needed. In the run-off with State Sen. Donald Stewart, Allen lost by more than 120,000 votes. In the general election Allen supported GOP nominee James Martin, a U.S. congressman and close friend of her husband Jim. Stewart defeated Martin, 55-43%. Allen left the Senate on Nov. 8, 1978, the day after the election.
After losing the election runoff, Allen was disappointed and depressed, so she missed Senate roll calls at a high rate. From June to Ocober 1978, she missed 155 of 356 roll call votes, for 43.5%. The median for senators serving that year was 12.1%, way lower that Allen’s absences.
After her Senate career, Allen worked as an award winning columnist for the Washington Post. She later worked as a public relations and advertising director for an antique and auction company in Birmingham. She died on July 23, 2018, more than 40 years after her troubled campaign for a full term. She was 92 years old.
“I’m hardly Phyllis Schlafly’s biggest fan,” Allen said in 1978 of the conservative firebrand. “When she grabbed Jim’s arm and said to me, ‘You don’t mind if I take your husband off do you? I have things to talk to him about that you wouldn’t understand.’ She insulted me several times, in front of my husband. Finally, I left, after pretty much telling her she was a ‘B….’ She’s supposed to be so feminine and all. Well, she’s as feminine as a sidewalk drill.”
Why not update the lyrics for the 1972 song that made Jim Croce a rock star? How about: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind; you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with the legend that was Maryon Pittmann Allen.”
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 13 years. firstname.lastname@example.org .