Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Bert Nettles, July 13, 1974. Interview A-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Analysis of Pierre Pelham

During the early 1970s, Pierre Pelham wielded a great amount of power in the state legislature. Nettles discusses the reasons Pelham garnered so much support, especially focusing on his political alliances and quick wit.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Bert Nettles, July 13, 1974. Interview A-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
Where does senator Pelham fit in?
BERT NETTLES:
Pelham is a brilliant intellectual, in a way. He's from a family . . . old line Washington county family. This is the piny woods section . . . north of Mobile county. As you came down from Tuskaloosa, if you remember crossing the Tombigbee River? You went through from Jackson . . . the Timbigbee River on the south until you got to the four lane highway. Most of that area was Washington county. It's very poor land. You've got a few large family estates, but mostly it's people struggling. The piney woods section. That's where he's from. His father is an old line circuit judge up there from sort of THE family in that area. Judge Pelham, Joe Pelham was a big political power. The way he went, Washington county usually went. For years, back in the '30s and '40s. Pierre went off to Harvard where he was a cum laude graduate or maybe magna cum laude graduate at Harvard. Came back here to practice law. Been immediately tied in with Wallace. He was Wallace's floor leader at the Democratic convention when Hubert Humprey was nominated for vice president and Lyndon Johnson was nominated for his full term, in Atlantic City. When was that?
JACK BASS:
'64.
BERT NETTLES:
'64. And Pelham was on the platform committee and the spokesman for Wallace at that convention. He ran for the state senate. In fact I ran against him as a Republican, first time. We had been with the same law firm. When I came to Mobile he had already left the law firm I came with. No, in '64 was when I ran against him for the state senate. Think it was in '62, the Atlantic City convention. Anyway, he was elected to the state senate in . . . '66. You're right. '64 was the Altantic City. '66 he ran for the state senate. Was elected. And for eight years he was up there. Probably the outstanding orator in the senate. Brilliant man, but errantic. He jumps from one thing to another. He's got a lot of populist in him. And yet he's also conservative and very much of a ham. If you hear him talk . . . . Well, people would pack the galleries during one of his filibusters. He was a great person to block legislation. But he really got out of his element this last term when he accepted the position as president pro tem of the senate and Wallace's floor leader. That gave him the responsibility of pushing bills through. And he found that just contrary to his style. He couldn't whip up enthusiasm for the passage of something. He could singlehandedly block a bill or obstruct something. Brilliant when it came to that. Or arousing public sentiment against it. But he's abrasive. He can describe a person beautifully. For example, Mobile has a mardi gras tradition. Mobile is a very old community. Very much establishment minded. We change very slowly down here. A group of us, two years ago, tried to change the form of city government. We have a troika system, a three man city commission. And generally it's been unsuccessful. You've got three people constantly vying with the other two for the roles of leadership. No one person responsible. A group of us, mostly young people . . . most of them Democrats, but a few Republicans like myself . . . were active in it. And we had things . . . we felt like we were going to make a change until the establishment, at the last minute, really put the money in an effort to defeat it. And did, overwhelmingly. Just say this about Pelham. One of the people who fought against that change, Max Rogers, who is president of American National Bank here. A young fellow who had been in the legislature. I say young, about 40, 42. Was making a speech attacking, rebutting Pelham's accusation that Mobile wasn't going anywhere, that we were sitting on our duff not doing anything and the rest of the South was passing us by. We needed some new leadership. So Max just made a polite rejoinder, very gentile way. Graduate of Williams College in the east. And Pierre came up . . . asked him "What about the facts and figures" that Max Rogers cited, newspaper reporter asked Pelham. And he made one comment. He said "Well, Max Rogers wouldn't recognize progress if it picked him up by the ears." He's got big ears, like me. "And Max Rogers measures progress by the size of mardi gras floats." He completely devastated Rogers' entire position, you see, just with two clever statements. People still laugh. That was eight or nine months ago. Pelham has the way of striking at a person's vulnerible point. What normally people wouldn't do. You know, that's hitting below the belt. Something like that. Referring to a person's big ears. But he's successful in it and has done phenomenally well. He's lost interest, though, in the legislature. He has wanted to go to Congress, but Jack Edwards blocks him there. Very popular Congressman who is a solid follower with just about every . . . with the rank and file votes. And so Pelham's never run against Edwards. He came within an ace of beating Frank Boykin before Edwards was elected in '64. Pelham had run against Boykin in the primary, in '62 I think. Came very close to beating him. But that's a question as to what he's going to do.
JACK BASS:
Does he have any state wide interests?
BERT NETTLES:
I don't think so. He's had some problems lately. Some financial problems. Sort of tied in with some subdivision deals here and there. He, I think, is probably jockeying more on the national scene as a possible liaison man between the Wallace group and Kennedy. That's what he'd like to do. He was at Harvard this past year teaching.
WALTER DE VRIES:
Was he at the Kennedy institute?
BERT NETTLES:
Yes, at the Kennedy Institute last fall and early part of the winter. And thoroughly enjoyed that. I think made quite a few waves up there. Those people are not accustomed to his style of debating, I think. There was a story in the local paper and Pierre was telling me a little bit about it last spring. He debated one of the McGovern leaders who also was at the Kennedy Institute or maybe on the faculty full time. And they were discussing McGovern vs Wallace relative to the '72 election. And again, Pelham used his regular style and completely devastated the fellow.
JACK BASS:
Where is he vis a vis Beasley?
BERT NETTLES:
He was opposed to Beasley and then Beasley got an endorsement out of him this last time. So it's . . . Pierre's erratic. He jumps back and forth.