“Big Jim” Folsom (1908- ), governor of Alabama (1946-1950, 1954-1958), was said to have entered office on a collision course with the state’s two major economic estates, big business and big agriculture. The 20-county Black Belt (a name derived from its soil, but equally descriptive of population composition) traverses the state just south of center. The Black Belt depends upon a plantation economy, while small farms were the historic economic base of the Wiregrass (southeast Alabama) and the area north of Birmingham. The populist revolt Folsom led sought to wrest political control away from the Black Belt and the industrial elite and to place it in the hands of the small farmers. The Progressives managed to achieve some administrative reforms, and a resuscitated Populist challenge was carried forth by the KKK in the 1920’s (putting an unknown, Hugo Black, into the U.S. Senate in 1926). But state government in Alabama, like here, there, and everywhere, continued to be dominated by the Power Bosses.
Folsom was born into one highly political family and married into an other. He stumbled into the governorship, spouting Populist rhetoric and sentiment, in a pre-TV era when person-to-person shoestring campaign ing was viable. His platform featured free textbooks, more emoluments for teachers, a Townsend-type award for chronicity, poll-tax repeal, and reapportionment. He wanted the extension service to serve dirt farmers rather than the political interests of the Farm Bureau, and he had an abiding interest in farm-to-market roads. Folsom came to Goat Hill (the Alabama capitol) with what the authors describe as a serious minded reform intent in the ancient struggle between the working hoi polloi and their betters.
Folsom received little legislative support. Folsom’s administration operated through road-contract patronage and various slush funds, profligate use of state equipment, and kickbacks from liquor companies wanting to sell in state stores-methods aptly summed up by one report as “the pig snort orgies and ravages of Folsom’s unfit band.” To a large degree, his scofflaw corruption was part of his charismatic appeal. No one seriously accused Big Jim of hypocrisy.
From the 1940’s to about 1970 Negrophobia was the political perennial of the South. Maintaining segregation was not Folsom’s forte, partly because of his native underdog sympathies and probably because Folsom dimly under stood the reversals of republican virtue of which the civil-rights dereliction was symptomatic. In refreshing contrast with the hypocritical tactics of fatcat-landhog-political-businessmen, Folsom made no concerted effort to “out-nigguh” his opponents. But Folsom’s finest trait may have been his native identification with the farmer at his plow and the laborer at his bench, which prompted opposition to the Truman-Marshall-Wall Street-State Department brokerage of the sweat of American labor. He was sufficiently gutsy to veto bills requiring an anti Communist loyalty oath for public employees, a clear demonstration that “he cared more about civil rights than he did about public opinion.”
Folsom’s administrations were characterized by nepotism, the spoils system, under-the-table dealing, enigmatic appointments, rigged bidding, and kickbacks in the customary fashion of self-government dose to the people. The central purpose of government is the distribution of spoils; good government is good distribution. Big Jim attempted to do a lot of good. There was a lot of Adam Clayton Powell (or vice versa) in Folsom’s version of the American way. While some were left livid, most of the electorate was not offended by Folsom’s direct and earthy style.
Folsom brought the political tactics of a banana republic to the Deep South. He could polemicize about the “rich boys who drove to town in big limos” while describing his own conspicuous vehicle.as “your” limo. Folsom’s public immunity for his salaciousness, carousing, and corruption seems more characteristic of Louisiana than Alabama. He was 6’8″, but had the cajun scofflaw savoire faire which had wide folk-appeal. The governor could sin so venially, openly, and unabashedly that it caused little opprobrium.
Although Folsom left almost no political legacy, the authors conclude, he represented “something” in Alabama politics that cannot be quantified. That “something” is illustrated by an anecdote of one of his public peccadilloes while attending a meeting of the Southern Governors’ Conference:
The Navy ferried the governors by helicopter out to an aircraft carrier, where they planned to demonstrate how fighters took off and landed from the ships. Everyone was there except Folsom, who arrived late, stumbled down the helicopter steps, staggered across the deck waving his big gray hat at the seamen, greeted an admiral with a jarring thump on the back and a hearty “Hi ‘ya, boy!” and sat down amidst the other governors and naval officers. The demonstration began, but to everyone’s horror the first jet catapulted off the carrier, splashed down into the water, and exploded. As the group stared at the pillar of smoke rising above the ship, Folsom slapped the man next to him on the knee and bellowed, “By God, if that ain’t a show, I’ll kiss your ass.”
Anybody who repeatedly passed out at public functions so that aides had to bodily drag him out couldn’t have been all bad. Big Jim was indeed a show.
[Big Mules and Branchheads: James E. Folsom and Political Power in Alabama, by Carl Grafton and Anne Pennaloff; Athens: University of Georgia Press]