William "Bill" Louis Dickinson (1925-2008) has so far been the longest-serving Republican congressman in Alabama history, 28 years from 1965 to 1993. A World War II veteran, he was a strong supporter of increased military spending, intervention against Communism in Vietnam and El Salvador, and confronting the Soviet Union. In addition, he was committed to improving economic conditions in Alabama and helped secure funding for the state's roads, highways, and military bases. Dickinson was known for his humor and honesty, as well as for being a collegial statesman and a skilled legislator.
Dickinson was born in Opelika, Lee County, on June 5, 1925, to Henry Kline and Bernice Esther (Lowe) Dickinson. He had two sisters and one brother. In 1911, Dickinson's father earned a law degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia and then married Bernice Esther Lowe on April 21, 1915 in Opelika, where he practiced law and served as mayor from 1925 to 1936. William Dickinson received his early education from Opelika public schools and then served in the United States Navy from 1943 to 1946 in the European Theater during World War II. After returning from the war, Dickinson returned to Opelika and married his first wife Patricia in Elmore County in September 1948; he also joined the Air Force Reserves.
Following his military career, Dickinson attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and received a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of laws, and J.D. degrees by 1950. He then became a partner in Advantage Associates Inc. of Opelika and was admitted to the Alabama State Bar later that year. In 1951, he became an officer in the Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corp, and as Judge Advocate served as a legal advisor until 1968. In 1952, he was elected as a Democrat as a judge for Opelika in 1952. In the early 1950s and into the early1960s, Dickinson held a variety of positions, including judge of the Lee County Court of Common Pleas and of Juvenile Court, was a member of the Opelika Board of Education and its president (1961), and was a judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Alabama (1958-1962). In 1960, he co-founded the board of directors of the Lee County Rehabilitation Center. He became assistant vice president of the Southern Railway System in 1962 and moved to Montgomery and in 1963 joined Gov. George Wallace's Industrial Development Committee of One Hundred. That same year, he married Barbara Edwards; the couple would have four children.
A conservative Democrat, Dickinson switched parties and ran for Congress in 1964 as a Republican in Alabama's Second District, which included Montgomery and most of the southeastern portion of the state. He defeated 14-term Democratic incumbent George M. Grant by a 25-point margin in the aftermath of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dickinson won reelection by a nine-point margin in 1966 and was returned to Congress 11 times without serious opposition, serving 14 terms.
Dickinson began his congressional career serving on the Subcommittee on Legal and Monetary Affairs and Subcommittee on Research and Technology Programs of the Committee on Government. From 1965 to 1992, he was a member of the Committee on House Administration, including the Subcommittee on Accounts, Subcommittee on Ethics and Contracts, and the Special Subcommittee on Police. From 1969 to 1992, he continuously served on the Committee on Armed Services. His subcommittee assignments included Subcommittee No. 1, Special Subcommittee on National Defense Posture, and the Special Subcommittee on Tactical Aircraft Procurement. During the 1970s, Dickinson's assignments expanded to include the Subcommittee on Armed Services Investigating, Subcommittee on Supplemental Service Benefits, Subcommittee on NATO Standardization, Interoperability, and Readiness, and the Joint Committee on Printing. By 1980, he was the ranking minority member of the Defense Policy Panel, Subcommittee on Research and Development, and Subcommittee on Military Installations and Facilities, as well as the Joint Committee on Printing.
During his congressional career, Dickinson became a leading member of the Republican conservative wing. In the early 1980s, he rose to ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the Department of Defense and the country's armed services. He supported Pres. Ronald Reagan's buildup of military forces and strongly supported the multi-warhead MX missile (LGM-118A Peacekeeper) and its mobile rail-based system, which was never put into use. He fought to maintain funding for the M1 Abrams tank, the M3 Bradley troop carrier, and the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, all of which have become mainstays in the arsenal of the U.S. military. In addition, Dickinson obtained funding to support military installations in his district, including Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex, the Air War College at Air University, and Fort Rucker and the U.S Army Aviation Museum there. He also is credited with the creation of the Apache Attack Helicopter program in the Army's Aviation Department. His congressional support was integral to the construction of the Perdido Pass deep-sea wall, which helped preserve the waterways around Perdido Key and slowed erosion caused by a previous federal project to deepen the waterways in that area. He helped secure the initial funding for the Outer Loop Interstate Connector linking I-65 to I-85 in Montgomery.
In 1990, Dickinson won reelection by a small margin over Alabama state welfare commissioner Faye Baggiano and chose not to
run again in 1992, retiring from Congress. Dickinson earned numerous awards throughout his life, mostly for his efforts on
behalf of national defense. Over the course of his life he became a freemason and member of the Kiwanis Club, Shriners, Elks,
and Opelika Jaycees. Dickinson died from colon cancer on March 31, 2008, at the age of 82 at his home in Montgomery. He was
buried at Rosemere Cemetery in Opelika. The Dickinson Law Center at Maxwell Air Force Base and Congressman William L. Dickinson
Drive in Montgomery were named in his honor.
Dickinson, William L. Papers, 1964-1993. Auburn University at Montgomery Library, Montgomery, Alabama.
Duncan, Phil. Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America 1992, The 102nd Congress. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1991.
Brett J. Derbes
Published September 27, 2012
Last updated February 8, 2013