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Jim Folsom


Jim Folsom In 1946 a populist candidate for governor took Alabama by storm, becoming a political mentor to the young George Wallace in the post-war era. "Big" Jim Folsom stood six feet eight inches tall and weighed 275 pounds, towering over nearly everyone around him. He had been an insurance salesman and a sailor in the merchant marine and for years tried to obtain political office. His candidacy for governor in 1946 was considered lightly and few gave the self-avowed sinner much of a chance. Folsom’s campaign band leader, Roland Johnson, remembers how Folsom would good-humoredly respond to queries about his character: "Anytime you bait a trap with a good-looking blond, redhead or brunette, you’re going to catch old Jim everytime." In spite of his carefree nature, Folsom’s genuine charisma and his concern for working-class people above traditional, conservative interest groups propelled his campaign and his message all the way to the governor’s mansion.

"To Big Jim Folsom," says Wallace biographer Dan Carter, "politics was about economics, economic power. He was really a creature of the 1930s and 1940s. And as he tried to shape his own political philosophy, it was to represent poor and struggling and working-class and even middle-class people against elites, against the forces of economic power that he felt like were constantly trying to keep them down."

As Folsom’s campaign caravanned all over the state, political observers including George Wallace took note of its entertaining, carnival atmosphere as well as the earthy approach of its main attraction. "He spoke to people on their level," remembers Cornelia Wallace, Folsom’s niece and Wallace’s second wife. "He wasn’t too sophisticated. He was more down home. I think people felt close to him."

Wallace, a new state representative, worked closely with Folsom and together they pushed several populist bills through the legislature funding trade schools, old-age pensions and hospitals. But Folsom’s term as governor was marred by political and personal misjudgment. He was unable to break the dominance of conservative Black Belt representatives in the legislature on larger issues such as legislative reapportionment, a revision of the 1901 state constitution, and a road construction bill to pave farm-to-market roads. He also suffered from what one historian called "too much whiskey, too many women, too few honest friends."

Others recalled Folsom’s liberal stand on the issue of race. "Big Jim Folsom was truly a flawed masterpiece," says former Alabama journalist Ray Jenkins. "He was far ahead of his time. He was not only progressive in terms of his social and economic policies but in race policies as well. I remember in particular this speech that he made in 1949, his Christmas message to Alabama in, in which he talked in very heartfelt and compassionate terms about how it’s time to start doing something about the plight of the black people in Alabama. And saying it was time to stop just preaching brotherhood and start acting brotherhood, and as long as the black man was held down, the poor white people would be held down with him. A really remarkable man."

Zecozy Williams, an African American Alabamian and political observer recounts her fondness for Folsom and his inclusive approach to politics: "I went to one of his rallies here. He had the song, ‘Y’all come, y’all come.’ When you say, ‘Y’all come,’ that didn’t say Negro nor white. He says, ‘Y’all come.’"

During his second bid for the governship in 1954, Wallace became Folsom’s South Alabama campaign manager and traveled all over Alabama touting both the governor and himself. The popular Folsom was reelected, but his following would begin shrinking almost immediately as segregation became a more contentious and politically-charged issue. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on "Brown v. Board of Education," the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the federal court ordered admission of an African American, Autherine Lucy, to the University of Alabama, many whites feared a seemingly inevitable movement towards integration. Folsom did not share their concerns.

In a memorable political blunder, Folsom invited Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to the governor’s mansion for a visit. Powell, who had been in Montgomery to help register black voters, later bragged to the press about enjoying a scotch and soda with the governor. For many, this was the last straw, and Wallace took the opportunity to break with the politician whose campaign style he had so long admired and emulated. He spread the word amongst fellow politicians and journalists that he could no longer support a governor who had always been "soft on the nigger question."

After his second term as governor ended, Folsom ran a lackluster campaign in 1962 against his former protégé George Wallace. An unfortunate television appearance on the eve of the Democratic primary derailed his efforts and signalled the end of his political career. Folsom appeared drunk and incoherent on the statewide show. He tried to introduce his family but couldn’t remember his sons' names. His speech broke down into gibberish as he called his greedy opponents "me-too" candidates, resulting in minutes of Folsom chanting "me, too, me, too, me, too, meeee, toooo!" While friends and associates claimed Folsom had been drugged, the damage was done. He would never hold public office again despite numerous attempts.

Years later, Jim Folsom reflected on the difference in strategy which brought Wallace into office and pushed him out:
Course, George, now, George wasn’t no race bigot either back yonder. Me an’ George was always close. We just disagreed on one thing. I never did want to take any credit for hangin’ niggers. And he wasn’t always like he is now. He just wanted to get elected to things, that’s all.

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