Kenneth Allison Roberts (1912-1989) was a Democratic representative to the U.S. Congress from Alabama's Fourth District from 1951 until 1965. He promoted progressive social causes, but supported racial segregation. In addition to his political career, Roberts also served in the U.S. Navy and the Alabama State Senate.
Roberts was born in Piedmont, located in Calhoun and Cherokee counties, on November 1, 1912, the second of four children of John Franklin and Josephine Burton Roberts. His father was a clerk in a dry-goods store and also farmed. Roberts attended public schools and then studied at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Jefferson County. In 1932, he entered the University of Alabama Law School, where he was secretary of the Philomathic Literary Society and vice president of the Young Men's Christian Association. He became a member of Alpha Tau Omega, Phi Alpha Delta, the Blue Key national honor fraternity, and Alabama Quadrangle religious honor society and was on the staff of the Corolla yearbook. In 1935, he graduated with a law degree and was admitted to the Alabama State Bar the following year. He practiced law in Anniston, Calhoun County, and Talladega, Talladega County, from 1936 to 1941.
In 1941, Roberts ran successfully for a seat in the Alabama State Senate, but he resigned the following year to join the U.S. Navy Reserves. He served in World War II in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters and was discharged as a lieutenant in 1946. After the war, he became president of the Piedmont Development Company in 1945. Roberts was a member of the Alabama State Board of Veterans Affairs from 1948 to 1950 and worked as a city attorney in Piedmont. He was a freemason and member of the Protective Order of Elks and Lions Club.
In 1950, Roberts was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama's Fourth District which consists of 11 counties and portions of two others stretching from the Mississippi border to the Georgia border. He was known for supporting progressive legislation, including some of the earliest to assist working mothers, notably a law that enabled them to deduct some child care expenses, in 1953. He was devoted to consumer protection and chaired two congressional subcommittees on safety issues that were influential in developing national interest in automobile safety. He sponsored bills to control air pollution, enact seat belt safety standards, encourage refrigerator safety, and label hazardous substances. Roberts assisted in writing legislation regarding educational television, migrant workers, and child and Native American healthcare. He supported the electrification of the Coosa River Valley through the construction of dams. He married Margaret McMillian on September 22, 1953, and the couple would have two daughters, but would later divorce.
On March 1, 1954, Roberts was one of five congressmen shot and wounded by four Puerto Rican separatists on the floor of the House of Representatives. The gunmen were inspired by a series of recent revolts against U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico and opened fire from the House gallery during a roll call vote on an immigration bill. Roberts was shot in the left leg but crawled to safety. During his 1964 bid for reelection, Republican candidate Arthur Andrews defeated him, riding the wave of popularity for the Republican Party brought about by the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
Following his congressional career, Roberts resumed practicing law in Washington and maintained an office in Brewton, Escambia County. He served as counsel for the U.S. Vehicle Equipment Safety Commission from 1965 to 1972 and was a member of the National Highway Safety Advisory Committee from 1966 to 1970. Roberts retired in 1979 and died of congestive heart failure in Potomac, Maryland, on May 9, 1989. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Brett J. Derbes
Published September 24, 2012
Last updated September 26, 2012