Lister Hill

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Joseph Lister Hill, (born December 29, 1894 in Montgomery; died December 20, 1984 in Montgomery), was a 45-year member of the United States Congress. He was recognized as a moderate, progressive, populist Democrat whose influence in state politics gave Alabama's congressional delegations a distinctly liberal bent.

Hill and his twin sister Amelie were the first children born to surgeon Luther Leonidas Hill and his wife, the former Lilly Lyons, who raised them in the Catholic faith. He was named for Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptic surgery. Following his graduation from the Starke University School in Montgomery, he enrolled at the University of Alabama at the age of sixteen. He completed a bachelor of arts and a law degree in 1914. While there he founded the Student Government Association and served as its first president. He also founded the Alpha Rho chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, now more commonly known as "The Machine".

Hill continued his study of law at Columbia Law School in New York City. He was admitted to the State Bar of Alabama in 1916 and began his practice in Montgomery.

He interrupted his career to serve as a lieutenant in the 17th and 71st United States Infantry Regiments during World War I. In 1917 he began a five-year term as president of the Montgomery Board of Education.

As he entered public life, Hill became active in the Methodist church. In August 1923 he was elected to complete the term of former U.S. Representative John Tyson, who died in office. He ardently supported the New Deal politics of Franklin Roosevelt, and sponsored the House version of the bill that created the Tennessee Valley Authority. He married the former Henrietta Fontaine McCormick of Eufaula in 1928 and had two children, Henrietta and Luther Lister.

In 1938 Hill won a special election to complete Hugo Black' term in the U.S. Senate after the resignation of Dixie Graves, defeating business-backed conservative Thomas Heflin. His election helped insure passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Early on the bright young Democrat was viewed as a potential leader of the national party, and was mentioned as a presidential contender. His Southern accent, heard during nationwide broadcasts from the 1940 Democratic National Convention, however, made him the butt of jokes outside the South.

He won re-election to his Senate seat in 1944, 1950, 1956, and 1962. He retired in January 1969.

Over his career, Hill particularly distinguished himself with legislation to improve health care infrastructure and research funding, including the 1946 Hill-Burton Act which greatly reduced the number of Americans without access to hospital care. He also sponsored the 1963 Hill-Harris Act and the 1964 Nurse Training Act. He is considered the father of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute for International Medical Research, and the G.I. Bill of Rights. Hill also sponsored the Rural Telephone Act, the Rural Housing Act, the Vocational Education Act, and the 1958 National Defense Education Act. He joined with Alabama Congressman Carl Elliott to sponsor the Library Services Act of 1956.

Along with other Southern Democrats, Hill opposed the Supreme Court's 1954 unanimous decision in Brown vs Board of Education requiring desegregation of public schools. He was one of 19 senators who signed the "Southern Manifesto" outlining opposition to desegregation, and voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Hill served as Majority Whip from 1941 to 1947 and, beginning in 1955 chaired the Senate's Labor and Public Welfare Committee. He also served on the Appropriations Committee and the Democratic Policy Committee. He was publicly critical of the Eisenhower administration's attempts to cut funding for hospitals and rural electrification, and to remove federal subsidies for freighting. He also called for more investment in Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center in the early years of the "Space Race" with the Soviet Union. He helped secure funding for several major public works projects in Alabama, including the dredging of the Mobile Ship Channel, construction of the Gainesville Lock and Dam in Sumter County, and completion of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

In his last re-election campaign in 1962, Hill faced an unexpected challenge from Republican James Martin, who criticized the Senator's support for foreign aid payments and his ineffectiveness in slowing federal intervention on Civil Rights matters. George Wallace was Hill's campaign manager. The race drew national attention as a harbinger of the return of two-party politics to the South. The battle did not drive voters to turn out, however, and Hill won a narrow victory. Some credited Hill's narrow victory on the successful outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Hill retired from his seat in 1969 and was succeeded by former Lieutenant Governor James Allen. Later in life Hill regretted his segregationist stance, saying, "I had to do that to get elected. We all did." Hill was awarded the Public Welfare Medal by the National Academy of Sciences. He died of pneumonia at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery in December 1984 and is buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

The Lister Hill Library and the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy at UAB are named in his honor. He is also the namesake of the community of Listerhill in Colbert County. Hill's great-grandson, Joe Hubbard is an attorney and former Alabama State Representative.

Preceded by:
John Tyson
2nd Congressional District of Alabama
August 14, 1923January 11, 1938
Succeeded by:
George Grant
Preceded by:
Dixie Graves
U.S. Senator from Alabama
January 11, 1938January 3, 1969
Succeeded by:
James Allen
Life of Lister Hill


  • Burnham, Walter Dean Burnham (November 1964) "The Alabama Senatorial Election of 1962: Return of Inter-Party Competition." Journal of Politics, No. 26, p. 811
  • Kerr, Peter (December 22, 1984) "Lister Hill, Longtime Senator from Alabama" obituary. The New York Times
  • Hamilton, Virginia Van der Veer (1987) Lister Hill: Statesman from the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
  • Hamilton, Virginia Van der Veer (April 24, 2015) "Lister Hill" The Encyclopedia of Alabama - accessed August 27, 2018
  • "J. Lister Hill" (August 1, 2018) Wikipedia - accessed August 27, 2018
  • Lister Hill article at the UAB School of Public Health