Jim Folsom

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Jim Folsom
Official portrait, 1955
42nd Governor of Alabama
In office
January 17, 1955 – January 19, 1959
LieutenantWilliam G. Hardwick
Preceded byGordon Persons
Succeeded byJohn Malcolm Patterson
In office
January 20, 1947 – January 15, 1951
LieutenantJames C. Inzer
Preceded byChauncey Sparks
Succeeded byGordon Persons
Personal details
James Elisha Folsom

(1908-10-09)October 9, 1908
Coffee County, Alabama, U.S.
DiedNovember 21, 1987(1987-11-21) (aged 79)
Cullman, Alabama, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Sarah Carnley
(m. 1936; died 1944)
(m. 1948)
Children10 (including Jim)
Alma materUniversity of Alabama
Samford University
George Washington University
Military service
BranchUnited States Army
United States Merchant Marine
WarsWorld War II

James Elisha Folsom Sr. (October 9, 1908 – November 21, 1987), commonly known as Jim Folsom or Big Jim Folsom, was an American politician who served as the 42nd governor of the U.S. state of Alabama, having served from 1947 to 1951, and again from 1955 to 1959. He was the first Governor of Alabama born in the 20th century.

Early life[edit]

Born in Coffee County, Alabama, in 1908, Folsom was of English ancestry.[1][2]

Before serving in the United States Army and United States Merchant Marine during World War II, Folsom had been an insurance salesman. He attended the University of Alabama, Samford University in Birmingham, and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but he never obtained a college degree.

Before his gubernatorial campaigns, he won a race only once as a delegate to the 1944 Democratic National Convention. He was a strong supporter of keeping U.S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace on the ticket, rather than replacing him with Harry S. Truman of Missouri, which occurred.


Official portrait, c. 1947

Folsom was elected governor for the first time in 1946 on a New Deal liberal platform attacking corporate interests and the wealthy. He waged a colorful campaign with a hillbilly band, brandishing a mop and bucket that he said would "clean out" the Capitol. His opponent, Handy Ellis, attacked Folsom by saying his election would threaten segregation laws and encourage "communist-backed labor unions".

Historian Dan T. Carter summarized Folsom's democratic ideals thus: "(T)he three pillars of a democratic society were the Bill of Rights, an activist and compassionate government, and an absolute and unqualified democracy." Folsom warned voters that, in the wake of World War II, which he said was fought "against hatred and violence," those sought to use mischaracterizations of political ideas to divide "race and race, class and class ... religion and religion."[3]

Folsom was among the first Southern governors to advocate a moderate position on racial integration and improvement of civil rights for African Americans. In his Christmas message on December 25, 1949, he said, "As long as the Negroes are held down by deprivation and lack of opportunity, the other poor people will be held down alongside them."[4]

On March 3, 1948, Folsom's name was in headlines across the nation when the 30-year-old Christine Putman Johnston, who had met Folsom in late 1944 while she was working as a cashier at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham, filed a paternity suit against the governor by alleging that he was the father of her 22-month-old son.[5] Undaunted, nine days after the suit was filed Folsom appeared on the sidewalk in front of the Barbizon Modeling School in New York City, where he kissed a hundred pretty models who had voted him "The Nation's Number One Leap Year Bachelor," attracting a crowd of 2500 onlookers and causing a traffic jam. The kissing stunt made national news but did nothing to stop the political damage being done by the suit. When the paternity suit broke, Folsom was challenging president Truman for the Democratic nomination for President. Because of the negative publicity surrounding the suit, Folsom lost his bid to represent Alabama as a favorite son candidate for president in an election held on May 4, 1948.[6] On May 5, 1948, without prior publicity, Folsom married the 20-year-old Jamelle Moore, a secretary at the state Highway Department, whom he had met during his 1946 campaign and had been dating and seeing "almost daily" since then.[7] Johnston subsequently dropped the suit in June for a cash settlement from Folsom; years later, he admitted to an interviewer that he was indeed the father of Johnston's child.[8]

However, despite the paternity suit and other scandals during his administration, he was easily elected to a second non-consecutive term in 1954. During his campaign, Folsom denounced the Ku Klux Klan and promised free textbooks for children. As noted by one study, Folsom brought to power "a legislative slate that gave him a working majority in both the House and Senate."[9] The Alabama Constitution then forbade a governor from succeeding himself, a common provision in other southern states at the time. Folsom was 6 feet 8 inches or 203 centimetres tall and employed the slogan "the little man's big friend."

In 1958, Folsom commuted a death sentence imposed on James E. Wilson, an African American sentenced to death for a violent robbery. The Wilson case sparked international protests, but some segregationists called for Folsom not to commute the sentence. Folsom opposed capital punishment, stating that he would always grant clemency in death penalty cases "if I can find some excuse." He regularly paroled and pardoned black convicts, believing they had been unjustly convicted or punished due to their race.[10] However, Folsom did not intervene in another controversial case; Jeremiah Reeves was electrocuted the same year, which also sparked protests. He later confessed that his silence was solely due to political reasons. Folsom said he "just couldn't" commute the death sentence of a black man who had been convicted of raping a white woman, since it would destroy him politically.[10]

"I'd never get anything done for the rest of my term if I did that. Hell, things are getting so bad, they're even trying to take Black & White Scotch off the shelves."[11][12][10]

A wide range of reforms were carried out during Folsom's two terms as governor. An indigent care bill for hospitalization was passed, while unemployment compensation was stepped up.[13] An Act of September 1947 raised the minimum age of employment of children from 14 to 16 for all occupations during school hours, "except in agriculture and domestic service, and for work in manufacturing establishments or canneries at any time." The Act also reduced the maximum workweek for children from 48 to 40 hours. Another Act from that same month provided for the establishment of a second injury fund "financed by payment by employer of $500 in death cases where there are no dependents."[14] In 1949 coal mine safety legislation was signed into law.[15] An Act of June 1949 related to workmen's compensation introduced various changes such as the provision of full benefits for 550 weeks, instead of reduced benefits for weeks after 400, "in permanent total disability resulting from loss of both eyes or both arms, paralysis, or mental incapacity."[16] An Act of July 1949 increased from 25% to 35% of employee's weekly the death benefit payable to a dependent widower.[17] An Act of August 1957 raised from 60% to 75% "the amount of wages of a resident worker exempt from garnishment." An Act from that same month specified (in relation to workmen's compensation) "that in lump-sum payments, which are permitted with court approval, the court must be satisfied that such payment is in the best interest of the employee or his dependents."[18] Another Act from August 1957 raised maximum medical benefits from $1,00 to $1,200, and extended the maximum period from 90 days to 6 months.[19]

During Folsom’s first term a diluted sales tax exemption repeal was carried out, with tax exemptions on alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, and stock withdrawn for private use by retail store owners, while revenue was provided for 4 trade schools.[20] An REA loan for an electric cooperative was also secured,[21] while schoolteacher's salaries were raised.[22] A farm-to-market roads program improved rural life while the establishment of an industrial development commission pleased business, while funding for health, welfare, education and old-age pensions was increased.[23] During his first term, for instance, as noted by one study, "When adopted by both houses, the 1947-49 biennial budget included the promised $5.5 million appropriation for old age pensions and represented an increase of approximately $50 million over the appropriations for the preceding biennium."[24] In addition, Fiscal 1947– 48 was the biggest year on record for the Department of Public Welfare. Increased state appropriations and federal matching funds provided $6 million more than the department had spent in fiscal 1946–47, and for pensioners the department was able to increase the average monthly check from $15.08 to $21.14 between June 1947 and June 1948, while enlarging its eligibility rolls from 27,000 to over 65,000 retired Alabamians.[25] According to one study, Folsom had supported the “largest appropriation of funds for public education in Alabama history.”[26]

Unsuccessful races[edit]

In 1962, Folsom again ran for governor against his one-time protégé George C. Wallace but was defeated. A sardonic slogan that referred to Folsom's reputation for taking graft emerged during that campaign: "Something for everyone and a little bit for Big Jim." Folsom sometimes referred to "the emoluments of office" and once told a campaign crowd, "I plead guilty to stealing. That crowd I got it from, you had to steal it to get it.... I stole for you, and you, and you."[27]

Folsom's campaign was also damaged by a television appearance in which he appeared seriously intoxicated and unable to remember his children's names.[28] Both the appearance and the supposed "slogan" hurt him with the image-conscious middle class.

Folsom ran again for governor in 1966 and faced three other leading Democrats in the primary, former US Representative Carl Elliott, former Governor John Malcolm Patterson, and Attorney General Richmond Flowers Sr. However, the primary winner was none of those candidates but the surrogate for the outgoing Governor George Wallace: his first wife, Lurleen Burns Wallace. In the general election, Lurleen handily defeated the Republican nominee, James D. Martin, a one-term US representative from Gadsden.[29]

Folsom would continue to run for governor in 1970, 1974, 1978, and 1982, but he was never taken seriously by his opponents. In the 1970 gubernatorial race, Folsom expressed opposition to the Vietnam War, high taxes and race against race politics stating “I'm the first and the last Governor the little man, the young people and the blacks ever had in Alabama.” .[30]

Later life[edit]

Folsom was plagued by ill health in the last years of his life. A 1976 article in People magazine reported that he was legally blind, with only 5% vision, and nearly deaf.

Folsom died in 1987 in Cullman.[31] His niece, Cornelia Wallace, the daughter of his sister, Ruby Folsom Ellis, was from 1971 to 1978 the second wife of his former rival, George Wallace.

A documentary film about Folsom Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism, was produced in 1996 by the Alabama filmmaker Robert Clem and won the 1997 International Documentary Association/ABCNews VideoSource Award and the Southeastern Filmmaker Award at the 1997 Atlanta Film Festival.

In the 1997 TNT film George Wallace, directed by John Frankenheimer, Jim Folsom is played by Joe Don Baker, who was nominated for a CableACE award for his performance. Gary Sinise played Wallace.

Folsom's son James E. Folsom Jr. (dubbed "Little Jim," he is physically large but called this because of his father's nickname) is also a noted Alabama politician. He served as lieutenant governor of Alabama from 1987 to 1993. He assumed the governor's office when Republican Governor Guy Hunt was removed from office after he had been convicted of state ethics law violations. Folsom Jr. ran for a full term as governor in 1994 but was defeated by Republican former Governor Fob James. He decided to re-enter state politics in 2006, qualified, and eventually won the lieutenant governor's position again; he served from 2007 to 2011.

Folsom had ten children, two by his first wife, Sarah, one by Christine Putman Johnston[32] and seven by his second wife, Jamelle Folsom. Folsom's first wife, Sarah Carnley, died in 1944 because of pregnancy complications.[33][34] Folsom eloped and married his second wife, former First Lady of Alabama Jamelle Folsom, in 1948.[34] They remained married until his death.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Little Man's Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946-1958 by George E. Sims University of Alabama Press, 1985
  2. ^ Alabama Giant: Recollections of Jim Folsom by Larry Brittain Childs
  3. ^ Carter, Dan T. (1995). The politics of rage : George Wallace, the origins of the new conservatism, and the transformation of American politics. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 72. ISBN 0-684-80916-8. OCLC 32739924.
  4. ^ The New York Times, May 4, 1974
  5. ^ "Unwed Mother Sues Gov. Folsom of Alabama; Tells Affair". Chicago Daily Tribune. March 3, 1948. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  6. ^ Christine Putman & Big Jim Folsom: A Memoir of Politics, Power and Love in the Deep South by James Douglas Putman Jr, 2023, P.101
  7. ^ Hammond, Ralph (January 18, 1955). "Jim and Jamelle - a Love Story". The Gadsden Times. No. Inaugural Edition. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  8. ^ Grafton, Carl; Permaloff, Anne (1985). Big Mules and Branchheads: James E. Folsom and Political Power in Alabama (Paperback, 2008 ed.). Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. pp. 113–114. ISBN 0820331880. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  9. ^ Big Mules and Branchheads James E. Folsom and Political Power in Alabama By Anne Permaloff, Carl Grafton, 2008, P.14
  10. ^ a b c "ExecutedToday.com » jim folsom". Retrieved 2023-03-04.
  11. ^ Virginia Foster Durr, Patricia Sullivan, Freedom Writer: Virginia Foster Durr, Letters from the Civil Rights Years, Routledge, 2003, ISBN 0-415-94516-X, 9780415945165
  12. ^ Jet. April 10, 1958 issue
  13. ^ Bitter Harvest Richmond Flowers and the Civil Rights Revolution By John Hayman, 2016, P.89
  14. ^ Annual Digest of State and Federal Labor Legislation Enacted September 1, 1947 to November 15, 1948, P.3
  15. ^ Everybody was Black Down There Race and Industrial Change in the Alabama Coalfields By Robert H. Woodrum, 2007, P.139
  16. ^ annual digest of STATE AND FEDERAL LABOR LEGISLATION, November 15, 1948 – December 31, 1949, P.3
  17. ^ annual digest of STATE AND FEDERAL LABOR LEGISLATION, November 15, 1948 – December 31, 1949, P.4
  18. ^ Annual Digest of STATE AND FEDERAL LABOR LEGISLATION, October 16, 1956 December 31, 1957, P.11
  19. ^ Annual Digest of STATE AND FEDERAL LABOR LEGISLATION, October 16, 1956 December 31, 1957, P.12
  20. ^ The Little Man's Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946-58 by George E. Sims, P.63
  21. ^ The Little Man's Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946-58 by George E. Sims, P.90
  22. ^ The Little Man's Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946-58 by George E. Sims, P.119
  23. ^ Alabama in the twentieth century By Wayne Flynt , 2004, P.66
  24. ^ The Little Man's Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946-58 by George E. Sims, P.62-63
  25. ^ The Little Man's Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946-58 by George E. Sims, P.83-84
  26. ^ The Little Man's Big Friend: James E. Folsom in Alabama Politics, 1946-58 by George E. Sims, P.159
  27. ^ Grafton, Carl; Permaloff, Anne (1 September 2008). Big Mules and Branchheads: James E. Folsom and Political Power in Alabama. University of Georgia Press. p. 170. ISBN 9780820331881.
  28. ^ "George Wallace". The Telegraph. 15 September 1998. Archived from the original on 13 September 2010.
  29. ^ Billy Hathorn, "A Dozen Years in the Political Wilderness: The Alabama Republican Party, 1966-1978", Gulf Coast Historical Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring 1994), p. 22, 28
  30. ^ Wooten, James T. (April 30, 1970). "'Big Jim' Folsom, in a Last Hurrah, Seeks Protest Vote in Alabama Primary". The New York Times. Archived from the original on Sep 26, 2023.
  31. ^ Phillips, Don (1987-11-22). "James Folsom, 79, Colorful Governor of Alabama in '40s and '50s, Dies". Washington Post. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
  32. ^ Christine Putman & Big Jim Folsom: A Memoir of Politics, Power and Love in the Deep South by James Douglas Putman Jr, P.57
  33. ^ Bullard, Benjamin (2012-11-30). "Former first lady Jamelle Folsom remembered (Updated with 2004 Times interview)". Cullman Times. Archived from the original on 2013-01-10. Retrieved 2012-12-30.
  34. ^ a b c "Former Ala. first lady Jamelle Folsom dies at 85". Montgomery Advertiser. Associated Press. 2012-12-02. Retrieved 2012-12-30.[permanent dead link]

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Gordon Persons
Democratic nominee for Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by
Gordon Persons
Preceded by Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by