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Opinion | Big Jim Folsom: Friends and lawyers

Big Jim was a true politician, and he was not above straddling the fence, but at least he was honest about it.

James “Big Jim” Folsom
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We continue this week with our series of stories about Alabama’s most colorful governor, the legendary Big Jim Folsom. 

Big Jim was a true politician, and he was not above straddling the fence, but at least he was honest about it. When asked a tough question about a complex or difficult issue, Ole Big Jim would simply look at the inquisitive reporter with a pensive thoughtful and serious look and say with a straight face, “Well you know some of my friends are for it and some of my friends are against it, and I’m always on the side of my friends.”

Big Jim had a real disdain for lawyers. He called them every name in the book. He especially criticized lawyers serving in the legislature, believing it was unconstitutional for them, as officers of the court, to serve in the legislative branch. He said lawyers belong in the judicial branch and if they wanted to be in politics, they ought to be judges since judges are elected in Alabama. He would rail against lawyers in the legislature every chance he got. He said they could not serve two masters. They can’t serve the Lord and the Devil. He called them two pocket lawyers.

In reality, he did not dislike all lawyers. A good many of his best friends were lawyers. Indeed, some of his best political friends and supporters were lawyers. 

Former Governor John Patterson, who passed away last year at age 99, shared with me this next story about him and Big Jim.

During Big Jim’s second term, 1955-59, John Patterson was attorney general and succeeded Folsom as governor. On the surface, it appeared Folsom and Patterson did not like each other because Patterson was quick to condemn and prosecute some of Big Jim’s cronies. However, they did like each other and remained friends throughout their lives.  Both were astute politicians.

During this time, the Interstate Highway Act was created by the Eisenhower administration. It was and still is the largest federal project ever undertaken. A good bit of federal money began to flow into the states, including Alabama, for development of the interstate system.

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There were a good many Alabamians who did not want to give up their land for highways. Some had land that had been in their families for generations and their forefathers had admonished them never to sell the land. In those cases, the state and federal governments had to condemn the land and take it over by right of eminent domain. The legal maneuvering fell upon the state attorney general’s office, and the work was so overwhelming that the attorney general’s staff had to hire outside lawyers. This is and has always been a lucrative plan for lawyers. Patterson was delighted to get to put a good many of his legal brothers and political supporters on the state’s payroll as assistant attorney generals. These lawyers would make a lot of money on these projects.

One of the most expensive acquisitions was the purchase of the area in Jefferson County that today is known as “malfunction junction.” Forty acres of houses, including some very nice homes, were located in the path of the highway in the Norwood section of north Birmingham. The cost and legal fees were substantial.

Patterson hired a good many of his Birmingham legal buddies. He sent the contracts over to the governor’s office to be approved. The governor legally had to sign off on the contracts. A good amount of time had elapsed between Patterson sending his list of lawyers over and Big Jim signing off on them. Finally, Patterson went over to see Big Jim about his appointments. He said, “Governor, what’s the problem? We need to sign off on this work.  It’s delaying the highway system from moving on in Alabama.”

Big Jim looked at Patterson and said, “John, you know that I have a lot of friends that are lawyers, too.” The Governor said, “I’ve got a deal for you. You name half of the lawyers and I’ll name half of the lawyers.” What could Patterson say? That’s the way it came down!

Big Jim believed in helping his friends.

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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