CULLMAN, Ala. — Former two-term Gov. James E. (Big Jim) Folsom, a 6-foot, 8-inch folk hero who brought paved roads to rural Alabama and preached racial moderation in turbulent times, died Saturday at age 79.
Folsom, who was blind and bedridden, became seriously ill at his home here at about 1 a.m. and died about an hour later after a heart attack. His wife, Jamelle, was at his side, said Peck Fox, administrative assistant to Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., the governor's son.
During his two terms as governor in the 1940s and 1950s, Folsom pushed for higher teacher salaries, old-age pensions, farm-to-market roads and reapportionment of the Legislature. He also advocated repeal of the poll tax to provide greater ballot access to poor blacks and got a law passed making it illegal to wear a mask on state highways, thus removing the hoods from Ku Klux Klansmen.
Ran for Governor 7 Times
Folsom was in failing health in recent years and was legally blind for more than a decade. But despite physical ailments, he kept up his love affair with the ballot, running for governor seven times and finishing fourth out of five Democratic candidates in his final race in 1982.
Folsom won his first term as governor in 1946, stumping the state with the Strawberry Pickers blue grass band and the song "Ya'll Come" as his campaign theme. A mop and bucket in hand, he told crowds at dozens of town squares that he was going to "clean out the scalawags" at the Capitol.
He won his second four-year term in 1954 and, despite growing racial turmoil, built a reputation as a Populist and racial moderate, once sharing a drink on a portico of the Executive Mansion with black Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York City.
Gould Beech, a former Folsom press secretary, said the governor once explained why he avoided the politics of race.
Learned 'Men Are Men'
"When I was 18," he quoted Folsom as saying, "I spent a lot of time below decks on freighters crossing the Atlantic. 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."
A colorful figure full of earthy humor and down-home language, Folsom was known as "the little man's big friend" for his fight against special interests in the Legislature and as "Kissin' Jim" for his habit of bussing the ladies at campaign rallies.
Folsom openly acknowledged a battle with the bottle during his political career, which virtually ended in 1962 when he appeared on television in an incoherent state during his bid for a third term. The fiasco helped propel George C. Wallace into the governor's office. Folsom never regained it, despite later claims that his ill-fate appearance was caused by an opponent slipping him a drug, not by too much whiskey.
"Gov. Folsom was a personal friend of mine, and I will miss him, as will all Alabamians. He was a legend in his own time and his Administration did much to improve education and to provide farm-to-market roads," said Wallace, whose second wife, Cornelia, was one of Folsom's nieces.
Touched the People
Republican Gov. Guy Hunt, a Cullman native and longtime acquaintance, said: "A powerful political figure who touched the hearts and minds and dreams of the Alabama people has passed from our midst. Gov. Folsom was a Populist who was much loved by the people of Alabama, and he will be sorely missed."
Lt. Gov. Folsom said his father "will always be remembered as a very warm and colorful political personality, but we feel he would best like to be remembered as a true Jacksonian Democrat who possessed a deep faith in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the principle of one man, one vote. He was most proud of his record on initiation of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Compact. Next would be the farm-to-market road program, and third, the defense of the individual liberties of our citizens."
Born Oct. 9, 1908, Folsom was raised in Coffee County near the Pea River. He graduated from Elba High School in 1927 and attended the University of Alabama and old Howard College in Birmingham, but his schooling ended when the Pea River flood of 1929 forced him to return home to help his family.
His only other formal education came when he took public speaking classes at George Washington University in Washington while employed by the Works Progress Administration.
First Contest in 1936
During 1933 to 1935, Folsom was Marshall County administrator. His first political race was in 1936 when he ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Henry Steagall.
Folsom made his first run for governor in 1942, losing to Chauncey Sparks. But in 1946, he ran again and defeated Handy Ellis in a runoff.
Folsom married Sarah Carnley in 1936. She died in 1944, and during his first term as governor, he married Jamelle Moore.
He is survived by nine children from his two marriages.
Folsom's funeral will be held Monday at the First Baptist Church of Cullman, with his body lying in state for an hour before the service. Burial is to be in Cullman City Cemetery.