Remembering the 1962 Election of Bill Brock to Congress

Friday, November 02, 2012 - by John Shearer
Bill Brock and supporter Wes Brown
Bill Brock and supporter Wes Brown

 
This November marks 50 years since a watershed political event occurred in the Chattanooga area – the election of Bill Brock III as the first Republican U.S. congressman from the Third District in 42 years and only the second since the 1800s.
  
It was the beginning of a move by many conservatives in the Chattanooga area to switch from voting Democrat to Republican, a process that would continue over subsequent decades and eventually result in helping elect Republican governors and U.

S. senators in Tennessee.
  
But besides the political ramifications, the 1962 election was also an eye-catching story from a human perspective. Literally thousands of volunteers helped conduct a pioneering grassroots campaign in one of the most uplifting and supported political runs ever witnessed locally by either party.
  
“The campaign was an absolute blast,” recalled Mr. Brock from his Annapolis, Md., home recently. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had 4,000 volunteers knocking on doors.”
  
Gene Hunt, who worked in Mr. Brock’s Chattanooga office for 10 years, said that it was definitely an unusual election. “It was an interesting time, the fact that nobody thought he could win,” he said. “The campaign united people from all sorts of neighborhoods.”
  
While that campaign period was a whirlwind time, Mr. Brock’s decision to run had evolved rather slowly. After attending McCallie School and Washington and Lee and serving in the Navy, Mr. Brock – the grandson of a U.S. senator -- returned home to his family’s Brock Candy Co. and joined the Jaycees.
  
The once-popular civic club of young professionals had become involved in trying to aid literacy and other needy causes. However, its members found their projects not being overly endorsed by the local governments and Chamber of Commerce, which were used to dictating policies themselves.
  
“We kept running into roadblocks,” Mr. Brock said. “That was sort of frustrating.”
  
He also became involved in the election of 1956 as a Republican Party volunteer about the same time, and recruited people to go to the different polling precincts and observe the voting.
  
Some volunteers, including even his mother, were threatened, which surprised Mr. Brock. However, what bothered him even more was the indifferent response he received after complaining.
  
“It really got my attention because nobody would help,” Mr. Brock said. “A lot of us just got plain angry.”
  
Mr. Brock realized the only way to change this decades-old system of wheeling and dealing by one party was to change those who were being elected. He and several others helped form a Young Republicans Club and tried to recruit Republicans to run for office.
  
As the 1962 congressional election approached, Joe Delaney was being eyed as the Republican candidate to try and unseat Democratic Congressman J.B. Frazier Jr. However, Mr. Delaney moved to Colorado several months before the election.
  
But the local young Republicans quickly found someone else – Bill Brock.
  
“I ended up being the candidate,” Mr. Brock recalled with a laugh.
  
Despite the fact that he was 31 and had never held political office, he and his supporters campaigned in a veteran-like and meticulous manner. They even sought advice from an unlikely group known for being well organized – the local labor organization.
  
The group also recruited numerous volunteers – including Brockette girls dressed in white blouses and blue skirts. They also knocked on thousands of doors, a little-used campaign tactic at that time.
  
“We did things that had never been done before,” Mr. Brock said. “It never occurred to us not to do things like that. We did everything we could do. I think we started to change the world.”
  
It was not just Mr. Brock, but also a large movement to end mostly one-party rule that resulted in such enthusiasm. Some locals at that time also did not approve of President John F. Kennedy’s policies of strong federal involvement in programs and issues, and part of Mr. Brock’s support was a backlash against that.
  
In the campaign, Mr. Brock was careful to refer to himself more as a conservative than as a Republican, as he knew the majority of voters were still registered Democrats.
  
In the Democratic primary, Rep. Frazier lost to well-known attorney Wilkes T. Thrasher Jr., while Mr. Brock beat a Republican challenger nominated from the Monroe County area of the district.
  
And in the general election on Nov. 6, Mr. Brock edged Mr. Thrasher, 41, who went on to become a judge and was the son of County Judge Wilkes Thrasher Sr., the man for whom Thrasher Bridge was named.
  
The key Chattanooga areas that helped Mr. Brock carry the 11-county district were the middle class suburbs of Hixson, Middle Valley and East Brainerd.
  
But again, his victory could not be attributed simply to demographics.
  
As longtime Chattanooga News-Free Press editor Lee Anderson wrote of Mr. Brock the next day in an editorial, “Not so slick a speaker or so polished a campaigner as his opponent, he displayed dedication to principle that was admirable.
  
“He was also beneficiary of a most unusual ‘amateur’ political organization. Literally hundreds of ‘average’ citizens took up his cause to do volunteer work at the grassroots, an area of cultivation that can never be soundly underestimated as essential to political success.”
  
The late Mr. Thrasher was also thought to be too much aligned with President Kennedy and was criticized for taking out-of-town trips endorsed by the administration. And surprisingly, Mr. Thrasher was also not aided by having well-known Democratic office holders campaign locally on his behalf at a time when Mr. Brock had no nationally known Republicans make visits.
  
Mr. Brock’s stunning election under the campaign management of brother Pat Brock made news not just in Chattanooga, but also in the entire country.
  
“I didn’t realize what a big thing it was until learning I was the big breakthrough guy in the South,” he said. “I was considered the first new face (in the U.S. House) out of the Southern or border states.”
  
Mr. Brock went on to become U.S. senator and U.S. Secretary of Labor. These days, the now-81-year-old still stays active in various national political projects, including improving education, while also enjoying his grandchildren.
  
But he has not forgotten the magic of his first political election a half-century ago, an accomplishment for which he still feels grateful.
  
“Being young and doing something that everybody else said can’t be done was pretty exciting,” he said.
  
 
Jcshearer2@comcast.net


Bill Brock
Bill Brock

Presentation on Patrick Cleburne At The Battle Of Franklin Is Nov. 14

  FRANKLIN, Tenn. – The international impact of the Civil War in Tennessee will take center stage 10:45 a.m. Friday, Nov. 14, when renowned “conflict archaeologist,” historian, and 2014 Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Event keynote speaker Damian Shiels presents “Patrick Cleburne at the Battle of Franklin” at The Factory in Franklin. Confederate General Patrick Cleburne ... (click for more)

Viaduct at Jonas Bluff Improved the Safety of Cummings Highway

Modern road construction equipment and highway projects have conquered some of the challenges of traveling into the Chattanooga valley through the mountains.    However, in the days of horses, wagons, and Model T automobiles, some routes were treacherous.     From St. Elmo to the bridge across Lookout Creek, the narrow route of Wauhatchie Pike hugged the curves ... (click for more)

EPB Says "Close To A Wash" On City Street Light Billing

EPB President Harold DePriest denied Wednesday that EPB owes the city over $1 million on street light billing. He stated,  “EPB has never said that we owe the city $1.2 million. When all the facts are taken into account, the financial difference is close to a wash.” Mr. DePriest said, "I regret that this complicated issue has been oversimplified in some reports. As we’ve ... (click for more)

New Red Bank Zoning Ordinance Is Ready For Review

The new Red Bank zoning ordinance is ready for review, City Manager Randall Smith said Tuesday night. It can be seen on www.redbanktn.gov and the link to zoning regulations. The new ordinance will replace one that was created 30 years ago.    The plan will encompass both residential and commercial development and is intended to direct ... (click for more)

Why So Much For A Rail Study?

From the things that make you go hmm department. Ok, so the feds are giving us $400k and the city is kicking in another $300k for a total of $700k to do a study on having in town rail service. Why so much for a study? Don't get me wrong, I'm totally down with Chattanooga having some passenger trains running around. I get that. It's awesome. We've needed it for a long time. I ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: I’m Certainly No Expert

Sometime on Monday night, after I had written a piece on getting swatted with a switch as a kid, I got an email from ESPN Canada asking if I would be a televised guest on “Off the Record,” the most watched daily sports show in Canada. The subject: corporal punishment in America. Are you kidding me? I am hardly an expert. All weekend my world of sports and its excitement was warped ... (click for more)