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.