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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James Folsom, December 28, 1974. Interview A-0319. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Family history of racially progressive views

Folsom explains that his racially progressive views were the result of his family's tradition of racial tolerance. Reaching back in time to the mid-nineteenth century, Folsom describes how his forebears in Alabama had opposed secession, focusing especially on his great-grandfather's decision to emancipate his slaves in the 1850s. In addition, Folsom notes the high rate of Lincoln Republicans in northern Alabama during the Civil War years. From there, Folsom describes some of the opposition he faced from white supremacist groups because of his support for integration. The passage concludes with his thoughts on the role of the "race issue" at the time of the interview in the mid-1970s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James Folsom, December 28, 1974. Interview A-0319. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

My Grandpa Dunavent, was born in 1799. He married in Richmond, Virginia in 1823. His first wife was a HANDLEY and they moved to Alabama later on. The girl he married, it was published in the Richmond paper that time, she was pretty prominent. She was a HANDLEY and he brought them to Alabama and she died and he had two or three boys by her, four boys . . . no, three boys and an adopted one. Raised them all. And then they started the Civil War and he was opposed to the Civil War. He was an Andrew Jackson leader when Andrew Jackson first started in politics and he stayed with him right on up. This is the way that I understand it. And whenever Andrew Jackson began to talk about slave-holding, about secession,, well, Andrew Jackson denounced those that wanted it. He said that he would hang them by the tree there in South Carolina, Calhoun and such folks as that, you know. And he would have, too. And when Andrew Jackson died, my Grandpa, around 1850, they had the Compromise in 1852, well, he didn't have but two slaves, he give them away, freed them. He had brought them with him from Virginia and his daddy had given them to him to get him started off. He freed his slaves and he was an abolitionist from then on. He was against slavery. And he would speak all over southeast Alabama against slavery from 1850, I guess, right on. And when the ordinance of secession was put to the vote of the people or something like that, whenever they were selecting their delegates to the secession convention, he campaigned against secession. Spoke all over southeast Alabama and he had some boys that were about my size. Some of them had children. And he had to carry them around to guard him. One of my uncles has told me about it, backing him up when he would speak in the country churches all over and places like that. He had to carry bodymen and he about started the damn Civil War right where he was speaking, all over south Alabama. He was speaking against secession.
CANDACE WAID:
You know, you yourself Big Jim, were able to have some really independent ideas and before the Brown decision was even happening. I have read a speech of yours where you call for racial understanding. It was a Christmastime speech. Would you tell us about that and how you arrived at your ideas.
JIM FOLSOM:
That was when I was governor?
CANDACE WAID:
Yes, you really were liberal on racial issues.
JIM FOLSOM:
Well, I got that from my granddady and my mama and daddy.
CANDACE WAID:
And that was talked about in your family?
JIM FOLSOM:
Well, my uncle told me about it and I had heard it. And Pa was just a politician, but he was dead and Mama was still living. Pa died in 1919. That abolition sentiment and then here in north Alabama, this Sandy Mountain Plateau here, Winston County was the Free State of Winston and over here all up and down from here to Chattanooga . . . in fact, from here to West Virginia, this old mountain territory . . . this plateau goes from here to West Virginia and it is just a part of the Appalachian chain. And Abraham Lincoln said time and time again, not once but many times, that these people right in here in east Tennessee and western North Carolina and West Virginia were the most loyal people in the United States. Now, he said that time and time again. If he could have gotten troops in there earlier, he had to protect the capital or he would have gotten them in there earlier, you see . . . now, that's the reason that West Virginia was cut off. They were part of the mountain chain and they were just against secession. They wanted to be cut off from the state of Virginia and they were cut off and the Congress agreed to recognize it and Lincoln agreed to sign the necessary papers and it was made the state of West Virginia with two Senators and one Representative in the Congress. And they took their seats in 1863. It's a pity that north Alabama . . . at the battle of Corinth, they could easily have established the state of North Alabama, but he couldn't have gotten to it. But he had troops here in Decatur in 1862 or 1863. He could have recognized North Alabama as a state. Well, it's from my family and from history, too. See, I lived up here and I worked with these people and amongst them all, in the old Work Relief days and selling insurance. They are old Democrats. Most of them used to be Republican. They turned Republican after the Civil War, but they weren't real Republicans. But this plateau from West Virginia to right here were the most Democratic sections of the United States when Andrew Jackson was president. But it was the most Republican section of the United States after Lincoln . . . well, he was elected on an independent ticket the second time. He ran on a Save the Nation Ticket with his vice-president from Tennessee, that was part of it. It was to save the nation, he wasn't interested in anything else.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Now, when you were governor, because of some of your beliefs about racial questions, weren't there some groups that tried to impeach you, the White Citizens Councils?
JIM FOLSOM:
Oh, they tried everything. Why, they burned a cross right here in my front yard.
CANDACE WAID:
When was that, while you were governor?
JIM FOLSOM:
No, it was last October or September. I happened to be over in Montgomery when Maddox got beat. Well, I don't know, but something come about that and I said, "Well, there's one thing, from now on, these politicians can't go out and be elected on ‘Nigger, Nigger.’ They've got to run on their own merits. The Georgia election ended it." And they burned a cross right on the corner of my yard down there. But there have been several of those burned. When I outlawed . . . I signed a law outlawing masks in Alabama, the Klu Klux masks and about ten other states followed it one right behind the other.
CANDACE WAID:
You know, politicians, even Hugo Black was a member of the Knights of KKK. It used to be a social thing for everyone that was interested in politics and even . . . of course, I'm very young, but just from the few things that I've read, to be a member of the Klan. You know, it was like being a church member. Could you talk to me about that? You were never a member of the Klan?
JIM FOLSOM:
No, and I don't know that any of my family was ever a member of it.
CANDACE WAID:
That's very interesting, being politicians.
JIM FOLSOM:
I don't know whether my daddy or granddaddy was ever, no, I don't think they were ever associated with the Klan. Oh, they could have been, because there were all kinds back then, you know. But I know that my daddy never was, he didn't believe in it. They just didn't run with the group. The one that endorsed the Klan's principles. And I never have. That's an old American custom, that Klan business. It's not an issue anymore. The race issue is not an issue anymore. You know why?
CANDACE WAID:
Why?
JIM FOLSOM:
Out of the Alabama population, it's about 24% black. Well, it is scattered to such an extent that you can't, if every black . . . we'll just say theoretically that if every black in Alabama was to vote for a black and every white vote for a white, you couldn't elect over 10% of the black people to the legislature. And 10% of that would be fourteen of 144 members. And we've got fourteen black people in the legislature now, I believe. And that's as much as it can ever be if blacks vote black and whites vote white. It's not an issue. If you are going to make it a black and white issue, fourteen against 140 . . . well, fourteen out of 140, what in the hell are they going to attempt. You understand what I mean. That has deadened it more than any one thing.