Earl Hilliard

Earl Frederick Hilliard (1942- ) is a lawyer and Democratic politician who served in the Alabama House of Representatives (1974-1980), Alabama Senate (1981-1992), and the U.S. House of Representatives (1993-2003). Hilliard was the first African American from Alabama to serve in Congress since Jeremiah Haralson during the Reconstruction era. While in Congress, Hilliard earned a reputation as a hard-fighting and tactical legislator focused on securing federal assistance for both his urban and rural constituents.

Hilliard was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on April 9, 1942, to Iola Frazier and William Nelson Hilliard. He was educated in the city’s segregated public school system, and in 1960 he graduated from Western-Olin High School. He chose to attend a traditionally black college and in 1964 earned a bachelor of arts from Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where he met fellow student Martin Luther King Jr. In 1967, Hilliard received a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was a member of the Sigma Delta Tau social fraternity and Alpha Phi Alpha, the first Earl Hilliard African-American intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternity. Hilliard married Mary Franklin, who worked as a teacher and school administrator, and the couple had two children, both of whom later became attorneys. He was admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1968, taught at Birmingham’s Miles College from 1967 to 1968, and worked as assistant to the president of Montgomery’s Alabama State University from 1968 to 1970. He earned an M.B.A. from the Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University) School of Business in 1970. He then became a partner in the Birmingham law firm of Hilliard, Jackson, Little, and Stansel but also practiced law on his own at Hilliard and Company Inc. He was a senior partner at Hilliard, Jackson & Barnes from 1974 to 1977, and served as president of the American Trust Life Insurance Company in 1977.

In 1973, Hilliard began his political career when he ran for a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives. He won the election in a landslide in 1974 and represented the Forty-Fifth District, chairing the first Alabama Black Legislative Caucus. Omega Psi Phi named him “Businessman of the Year” in 1974, and Delta Sigma Theta presented him with the Distinguished Service and Achievement Award in 1975, the same year he served as chairman of the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus. In 1981, he ran successfully for a seat in the Alabama Senate representing the Fifteenth District. During his tenure, he chaired the Senate Judiciary, Commerce, Transportation, and Utility committees. In 1986 and 1992, he served as chair of the Jefferson County Senate Delegation. He served as a trustee of the Miles College Law School and Tuskegee University from 1982 to 1992.

In 1985, Hilliard purchased WJLD-AM in Birmingham but declared bankruptcy in 1991 after a deal to sell the Birmingham radio station faltered. In 1992, Alabama’s Seventh District for the U.S. House of Representatives was redrawn, created a black majority district that included Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham. Hilliard decided to run for the seat and defeated five other candidates in the primary, winning with 51 percent of the votes in a run-off against Hank Sanders. In 1994, he defeated Republican challenger Kervin Jones with 70 percent of the vote and ran unopposed in 1998.

In the U.S. Congress, Hilliard served on the House’s Agriculture, Small Business, International Relations, and Foreign Affairs committees. He also became a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and served as vice chairman of the organization during the 105th Congress. He later became vice chair of the Task Force on Taxation of the Progressive Caucus, as well as the Home Health Task Force of the Rural Health Care Coalition. Hilliard focused on creating economic opportunities for his constituents and expanding the Alabama military installations used by the Army and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He obtained a federal transportation grant to restore ferry service to Gee’s Bend, Wilcox County, and earned the state three designations for federal “enterprise zones,” which provided tax incentives to promote economic development. Hilliard successfully pushed for funding to support Alabama’s historically black colleges and universities and provide scholarship money for minority students. He secured funding for the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport in Tuscaloosa County under the federal Essential Air Service program and helped convince Korean automaker Hyundai to open a manufacturing plant outside of Montgomery. Hilliard was a featured speaker during the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant in April 2002. He also sponsored legislation to create a Southern Rural Development Commission across ten states to dispense federal money to projects enhancing economic development, improving health care, and offering job training, but the measure did not pass.

In 1997, Hilliard drew unwanted national attention for two particular incidents. In September, he made a trip to Libya despite a U.S. government ban on travel to the nation and the spending of U.S. funds there. He stated that he informed the State Department of the trip but did not offer a reason for the travel. In a subsequent investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Hilliard acknowledged that a Swiss company headed by a wealthy Tunisian businessman had paid $5,000 to fund a trip to Tunisia and Libya from August 21 to 25 to investigate how American money was being spent abroad. The U.S. Treasury Department confirmed that Hilliard did not spend money while abroad and dropped the case against him in November. Also, that December, a Capitol Hill newspaper accused him of breaking several House rules related to campaign staffing and financing by paying $17,000 from his campaign funds to family members who worked on his 1992 campaign. Hilliard admitted to the violations in a signed agreement, and on June 20, 2001, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (now the House Committee on Ethics) delivered the least severe punishment by issuing a written rebuke of his actions.

In the 2000 election, Hilliard was challenged unsuccessfully by former U.S. assistant attorney Artur Davis in the Democratic primary election. In 2002, following another redrawing of the Seventh District, Hilliard lost the election to Davis, who criticized Hilliard for voting against a bill to increase funding to Israel and opposing the criminalization of Palestinian politicians and accused him of not doing enough for his district. Davis defeated Hilliard with 56 percent of the vote in a 2002 run-off election. Following the loss of his congressional seat, Hilliard returned to his law firm in Birmingham. Hilliard is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, National Bar Association, the Alabama Lawyers Association, the Morehouse College Alumni Association, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hilliard’s son, Earl Jr., served in the Alabama House of Representatives from the Sixtieth District in 2006 and unsuccessfully ran for the Seventh District congressional seat in 2010. In 2014, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Jefferson County Commission. He practices law with his father at the firm of Hilliard, Smith, and Hunt LLC.

Additional Resources

Carey, Charles, Jr. W. African-American Political Leaders. New York: Facts on File, 2004.

Clay, William L. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991. New York: Amistad Press, 1992.

Freedman, Eric, and Stephen A. Jones. African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2008.

“Earl Frederick Hilliard.” Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

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