James Elisha Folsom, 79, the liquor-guzzling former Alabama governor whose racial moderation in the 1940s and 1950s brought calls for impeachment from segregationists and criticism from blacks, died yesterday at his home in Cullman, Ala.
Folsom, last of the larger-than-life populists of the era that embraced the Longs of Louisiana and the Talmadges of Georgia, had been in failing health for a decade. He was too ill to attend the January swearing-in of his son Jim Jr. as lieutenant governor and the renaming of the State Administrative Building in his honor.
His wife of 39 years, Jamelle, said he became seriously ill shortly after midnight and a nurse's efforts to revive him had failed. His son Joshua told United Press International that Folsom apparently died of a heart attack.
Folsom's 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame won him the nickname he liked best, "Big Jim," and his favorite campaign tactic, kissing every woman in sight, won him another one, "Kissin' Jim." He once figured he had kissed "50,000 of the sweetest mouths in Dixie." It was sort of like baby kissing, he said, "only I started with the 16-year-old ones and worked up from there."
Former governor George C. Wallace, an early Folsom political operative whose second wife Cornelia was Folsom's niece, issued a statement saying, " . . . 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."
Gov. Guy Hunt said, "A powerful political figure who touched the hearts and minds and dreams of the Alabama people has passed from our midst."
Folsom lost his first two political races -- for Congress in 1936 and governor in 1942. But in 1946, he came back strong with a populist campaign that dazzled the state. He hired a band called the Strawberry Pickers, picked up an old mop and a galvanized iron bucket and promised to clean out the Capitol.
"And I ain't gonna stop scrubbing until I let in a cool breeze and everything smells nice and pretty again," he said at every stop of a campaign that often ran to 10 stops a day. He promised a $50-a-month pension for everyone over 65, a paved road past every rural mail box, and higher pay for teachers. And he proposed abolition of the poll tax, theorizing that it disenfranchised poor white voters as well as blacks.
He won in a Democratic primary runoff -- the equivalent of winning the election in those days -- by the largest majority in Alabama history, 205,000 to 144,000 for Lt. Gov. Handy Ellis. He persuaded the legislature to pass a $1,800 minimum annual teacher salary, but the other promises had to wait for later years.
He immediately bought a new Cadillac, saying the people of Alabama deserved it, and engaged in continual fights with the legislature and the national Democratic Party as he carried on a life style that tended to alcohol and younger women. His cronyism was legendary; he hired almost every member of the Strawberry Pickers for high state jobs.
At 39, Folsom, whose first wife died in 1944, began a brief but celebrated affair with the 18-year-old daughter of then-California Gov. Earl Warren, telling reporters, "Taking a girl out is all part of nature. Men and women have been doing it for 10,000 years and they'll be doing it for 10,000 more. And I'm a man who likes to get close to nature."
He was socked with a paternity suit a couple of months later by an Alabama woman, Christine Johnson, which she eventually withdrew. During the legal proceedings he married Jamelle Moore, then a 21-year-old secretary in the state highway department.
Folson's racial leanings were brought to the fore in his Christmas message of 1949: "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 to rid themselves of hookworm, rickets and social diseases?" There has been too much "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."
Folsom was reelected in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling, and he spent much of his term in battle with a state legislature that was churning out bills designed to guarantee continued segregation. Many of those bills were enacted over Folsom's veto.
"When the Supreme Court speaks, bud, that's the law," he said.
He infuriated his opponents by inviting Rep. Adam Clayton Powell of New York, who was black, to a drink on the veranda of the governor's mansion.
Folsom was never an integrationist. He said he preferred separate but equal facilities, and he once promised that Alabama would be the last to integrate. But he said it was inevitable, and politicians had best lower their voices. He told the New York Herald Tribune in 1955 that "any yellow belly" politician can shout against blacks, but "then you know damn well they are trying to cover up dirty tracks."
A man who could talk country, Folsom also could use the English language powerfully, as when he told the Alabama Education Association in 1955, "I would remind you that we always 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 on the American educational front when we needed wisdom and tolerance and objective thinking, it is certainly now."
Alcohol and television led to Folsom's downfall. It was one thing to sit shoeless and drunk on a stage at a rally, but television brought the scene into every home and made it seem worse. When Folsom appeared on television "incoherent" one night, he never recovered. Wallace went on to win his first term as Folsom faded.
Folsom never lost his taste for the campaign, however, running unsuccessfully again for governor in 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978 and 1982. He also lost a race for the Senate in 1958.
Staff researcher Ann Rutherford contributed to this report.