Big Jim Folsom’s History Lesson

By Charles Morgan III


In the 1950s, as the story goes, Alabama’s governor Big Jim Folsom was caught en flagrante in a hotel room with a young woman. With reporters and photographers (who had been tipped off) in tow, he hastily assembled a press conference.


In a wrinkled suit, and obviously suffering from the effects of too much alcohol, the disheveled Folsom made a statement that went something like this:


“If you’re going to set a trap for Big Jim with a good bottle of whiskey and a long legged blonde…you’re going to catch him every time.”


The people of Alabama loved Big Jim.


Aside from his personal behavior, Folsom was my kind of governor. He once said, “Negroes constitute 35 percent of our population in Alabama. Are they getting 35 percent of the fair share of living? Are they getting adequate medical care?” He decried the “stirring of old hatred and prejudices and false alarms. The best way in the world to break this down is to lend our ears to the teachings of Christianity and the ways of democracy.”


He promised a monthly pension for everyone over 65, better pay for teachers, and abolition of the poll tax because it disenfranchised poor people—whites as well as blacks. He built “farm to market” roads and helped connect rural Alabama to the rest of the world.


“When I was 18, I spent a lot of time below decks on freighters crossing the Atlantic,” he said. “I slept and ate with men of different colors from all over the world. I learned then that men are men… They’ve got the same aims. There are a lot more important things about a man than the color of his skin.”


Remember. This was 70 years ago.


We are made aware every day now—several times a day—that what may have been commonplace 70 years ago—or 10 years ago—or yesterday—is not acceptable and never should have been. Big Jim Folsom fails every one of the litmus tests we now have regarding the personal behavior of our elected officials.


But there is one test that he passed with the greatest of ease. He was not a hypocrite.


In today’s world it’s difficult to tell who the good guys are. The bad guys don’t gravitate to any specific line of work. Neither politicians, athletes, businessmen, nor religious leaders are immune to abhorrent behavior. But as always, it’s the hypocrites that stand out.


A bible-thumping, gun-toting judge (twice removed from the bench for failure to follow higher court rulings) who tries to corner the market on “family values,” caters to evangelicals and has a creepy history of harassing young girls is not a great candidate for the United States’ Senate.


The Catholic Church has found, over the last two decades, that harboring child molesters does not further its mission and it can’t possibly help attract members to its cause.


Politicians can rail all day about the sins of homosexuality, the evils of same-sex marriage, and the horrors of a gay lifestyle. I disagree with their position. But I would suggest that if a politician or religious leader really believes that homosexuality is an abomination, it’s not a wise position to espouse if you are a closeted homosexual yourself.


And a gentle word from a barely practicing Episcopalian to all churches. If Christianity is all-inclusive (which I think is the whole point), someone should speak out about the hijacking of biblical principles for political practices. Not doing so doesn’t wear well with people who are confused about the direction of Christian policy.


Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, wrote to his fellow clergymen of his frustration with church leaders and “white moderates”:


“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”


Alcohol and carnal instincts finally got the best of Big Jim Folsom. But not before he said this in 1955:


“We hear more noise from those who are guided by blinded prejudice and bigotry than is ever the case with those who try to think through and be fair in their approach. If there was ever a time…when we needed wisdom and tolerance and objective thinking, it is certainly now.”

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