James Elisha Folsom Sr. (October 9, 1908 – November 21, 1987), commonly known as Jim Folsom or Big Jim Folsom, was the 42nd governor of the U.S. state of Alabama, having served from 1947 to 1951, and again from 1955 to 1959.
Born in Coffee County in southeastern Alabama, Folsom was among the first southern governors to embrace integration and enforcement 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”.
After service in the United States Merchant Marine in the early 1930s, Folsom became an insurance salesman. He attended the University of Alabama, Samford University in Birmingham, and George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; however, he never obtained a college degree.
Before his gubernatorial campaigns, he won a race only once: as delegate to the 1944 Democratic National Convention. He was a strong supporter of keeping Vice President Henry A. Wallace on the ticket, rather than replacing him with Harry S. Truman of Missouri, as it so developed.
Folsom as governor
Folsom was elected governor for the first time in 1946. He waged a colorful campaign with a hillbilly band, brandishing a mop and bucket that he said would “clean out” the Capitol.
On March 3, 1948, Folsom’s name was in headlines across the nation when 30-year-old Christine Johnston, a widow 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, alleging that he was the father of her 22-month-old son. 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. Johnston dropped the suit in June for a cash settlement from Folsom, who years later admitted to an interviewer that he was indeed the father of Johnston’s child.
On May 5, 1948, without prior publicity, Folsom married 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.
However, despite the paternity suit and other scandals that arose during his administration, he was easily elected to a second non-consecutive term in 1954. The Alabama Constitution at that time forbade a governor from succeeding himself, then a common provision in most southern states. Folsom was 6’8″ and employed the slogan “the little man’s big friend.”
In 1958, Governor Folsom commuted a death sentence imposed on James E. Wilson, an African American sentenced to death for a $1.95 robbery. The Wilson case sparked international protests, but some segregationists called for Folsom not to commute the sentence.
On the other hand, Folsom did not intervene in another controversial case, that of Jeremiah Reeves, who was electrocuted the same year, also sparking protests.
Two unsuccessful races
In 1962, Folsom again ran for governor against his one-time protégé George C. Wallace, but he was defeated. A sardonic slogan emerged during that campaign, referring to Folsom’s reputation for taking graft: “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.”
Folsom’s campaign was also damaged by a television appearance where he appeared to have been seriously intoxicated and unable to remember his own children’s names. Both the appearance and the supposed “slogan” hurt him with the image-conscious middle class.
Folsom ran again for governor in 1966, when he faced three other leading Democrats in the primary, former U.S. 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 outgoing Governor George Wallace, his first wife Lurleen Burns Wallace. In the general election Lurleen Wallace handily defeated the Republican nominee, James D. Martin, a one-term U.S. representative from Gadsden.
Folsom never again was elected to public office.
Folsom ran several times for public office but was not taken seriously by his political opponents. The former governor was plagued by ill health in the latter years of his life. A 1976 article in People magazine reported that Folsom was legally blind with only 5% vision and nearly deaf. Folsom died in 1987 in Cullman. 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 entitled Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism was produced in 1996 by 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” though he is physically large but because of his father’s nickname) is also a noted Alabama politician. He served as Alabama lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1993. He assumed the office of governor when Republican Governor Guy Hunt was removed from office after having been convicted of state ethics law violations. Folsom Jr. ran for governor in 1994 but was defeated by Republican former Governor Fob James. He decided to re-enter state politics in 2006, qualifying for and eventually winning the lieutenant governor’s position once again, having served from 2007 to 2011.
Folsom had nine children, two by his first wife, Sarah, and seven by his second wife, Jamelle Folsom. Folsom’s first wife, the former Sarah Carnley, died in 1944 due to pregnancy complications. Folsom eloped and married his second wife, former First Lady of Alabama Jamelle Folsom, in 1948. They remained married until his death.