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Opinion | Big Jim Folsom: Alabama’s most uninhibited governor

Big Jim Folsom was the epitome of unbridled candidness.

James “Big Jim” Folsom
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This week begins a four part series of stories surrounding Alabama’s most legendary colorful governor, James E. “Big Jim” Folsom.

Big Jim Folsom was the epitome of unbridled candidness. Late in his second term, he had been on a week-long trip to the Port City of Mobile with his buddies, but he had to come back to Montgomery to give a speech to the national convention of American Textile Manufacturers Association. It was a large and distinguished crowd of executives from all over the country and they were meeting in Alabama, so the governor was to give them his official welcoming speech.  

While Big Jim was vacationing in Mobile, someone in his office had written him a nice speech. Big Jim had never seen the speech prior to getting up to address the audience. He started reading the speech and it sounded somewhat dry and full of statistics.  Big Jim dutifully continued reading, “We want to welcome y’all to Alabama. Alabama is truly a textile state. We’ve got 200,000 people employed in the textile industry, and it means $40 million to our economy. We produce 4 million articles a week.” At that point, Big Jim looked up from reading and said, “I’ll be doggone, “I didn’t know that.”

An all-time favorite Big Jim story happened in the mid-1950s during his second term as governor, at the annual Southern Governors Conference. The assembled governors and other dignitaries were scheduled to be guests at a nearby U.S. Naval station to witness an air show. Big Jim had a reputation for enjoying libations. The governors were scheduled to gather at the waterfront at 6 a.m., and many doubted Big Jim would make it at that hour since he would have partied most of the night before. That was indeed the case, but nevertheless he arrived at the pier on time. It was obvious that he had not slept, he was still wearing the same suit and tie, he was unshaven, and his hair was askew, but he was raring to go.

The governors, dignitaries and aides were motored in small boats out to a huge aircraft carrier, which then sailed 125 to 200 miles offshore for a state of the art air show previously seen only by high-ranking naval officers and cabinet members. The sky was perfect, the sea was calm, it was a beautiful day. The crowd gathered on the flight deck. An admiral gave a glowing speech about the naval aviation and how important and accident free it had become. The admiral introduced the pilot, and then some enlisted men went through the crowd handing out earmuff devices to protect the observers’ hearing from the sound of the jet. Big Jim may have looked a little funnier than the rest of the governors in his earmuffs because of his size and dishevelment. He was six feet nine inches tall.

The airshow began. The jet got louder and louder as it whined down the airstrip and made a perfect takeoff. Then suddenly there was total silence. The jet flamed out, the engine quit running, the plane crashed into the water and was lost in the ocean. There was complete bedlam aboard the carrier. Sirens went off, divers prepared to enter the water and emergency helicopters prepared for takeoff. Then miraculously word came that the pilot had bailed out of the plane before it sank and was not injured. He was shaken up and wet but alive. 

The crowd gave a rousing cheer of relief that the pilot’s life had been spared. By this time everyone had taken off their earmuffs except Big Jim, who was still standing on the deck with his earmuffs on and his mouth wide open in amazement. Folsom had been watching the scene in absolute astonishment. He could not believe his bloodshot eyes. Finally, he could contain himself no longer. Because he was still wearing his earmuffs, he did not realize how loud he was talking and in a voice, you could hear for miles, Big Jim boomed, “Admiral, if that ain’t a show I’ll kiss your ass.”

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See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at

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