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About James Elisha Folsom, Sr.
James Elisha Folsom, Sr. (October 9, 1908 – November 21, 1987), commonly known as Jim Folsom or "Big Jim", was the 42nd Governor of the U.S. state of Alabama from 1947 to 1951, and again from 1955 to 1959. Born in Coffee County, Alabama, Folsom is perhaps best remembered as being among the first Southern governors to embrace integration and civil rights for African Americans. In his Christmas message on December 25, 1949 he said that "As long as the Negroes are held down by deprivation and lack of opportunity, the other poor people will be held down alongside them".
Folsom started out as an insurance salesman after serving in the United States Merchant Marine in the early 1930s. He attended the University of Alabama, Howard College, and George Washington University, however he never obtained a college degree.
Before his gubernatorial campaigns he won a race only once: to be a delegate to the 1944 Democratic National Convention, during which he was a strong supporter of keeping Vice President Henry A. Wallace on the ticket.
He was first elected governor of Alabama in 1946 after waging a colorful campaign that included entertaining voters with a hillbilly band and brandishing a mop and bucket which he said would "clean out" the Capitol. Despite some scandal in his administration, he was easily reelected in 1954 (the constitution of Alabama at that time forbade a governor from succeeding himself, then was a common provision in the constitutions of many Southern states). Folsom was 6'8" and used the slogan "the little man's big friend."
On December 1, 1955, during Folsom's second term, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus. Her actions sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Folsom again ran for governor against his one-time protege George Wallace but 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 be seriously intoxicated and was unable to remember his own children's names. Both the appearance and the supposed "slogan" hurt him with the image-conscious middle class. Folsom was never again elected to public office and died in Cullman, Alabama in 1987. His niece, Cornelia Ellis Sniveley, was married to George Wallace from 1971 to 1978.
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.
A documentary film about Big Jim 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 movie George Wallace, directed by John Frankenheimer, Jim Folsom is played by Joe Don Baker, who was nominated for a CableACE award for his performance.
Son James E Folsom, Jr.
Jim Folsom's son James E. Folsom, Jr. (dubbed Little Jim because of his father's nickname) is also a noted Alabama politician. He served as Alabama lieutenant governor from 1986 to 1993. He assumed the office of governor when Gov. H. Guy Hunt was removed from office after being convicted of state ethics law violations. Folsom, Jr. ran for governor in 1994, but was defeated by Fob James. He decided to re-enter state politics in 2006, qualifying for and eventually winning the lieutenant governor's race.
Jim Folsom had nine legitimate children. Two by his first wife, and seven by his second wife. A number of extra-marital paternity claims have been alleged during the years.