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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Evaluating Alabama Governors Folsom and Persons

LeMaistre remembers two Alabama governors. First comes a "believing liberal," Democrat Jim Folsom, who served from 1947 to 1951 and again from 1955 to 1959. Folsom attracted supporters with his convictions, but his behavior was apparently not attractive, although he did motivate some supporters with a stunt involving a mop and a bucket. Persons, who was governor from 1951 to 1955, lacked both the personality and the ideological convictions of Folsom, but LeMaistre recalls that he found some success, especially when, following the assassination of the state's attorney general-elect in Phenix City, he declared martial law there. The assassination generated support for the victim's son, John Patterson, who would go on to exploit racial hatred in his successful run for the governorship in 1958.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. 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

Now returning really a moment to state politics. Of course, the Dixiecrat movement occurred right in the middle of Folsom's first term, and it has been said that Folsom was a Loyalist, as opposed to the Dixiecrats. That was one of the reasons why he wasn't successful, but I'm sure it wasn't the only one.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, one thing that Jim Folsom did, and Jim Folsom as a politician was probably as good at appealing to the little man as anybody. He really paved the way for George Wallace's hold on the little people with small income or no income and with very little contact with wealth or industry, and he was at that time sort of building his base with continued New Deal pronouncements. Jim Folsom was a believing liberal. He wasn't just mouthing the phrases that came out of the New Deal. He also was not a very, I guess you'd say, successful image for somebody to pattern himself after. Jim was such a problem to his own supporters that you'd never say anybody supported Jim because he admired him. They admired what he stood for and what he said, maybe, but, for instance, the Dean of the law School here, Bill Hepburn, considered Jim Folsom the purest disciple of democracy that we have ever had. He felt like the big decisions ought to be made by the people. And for that reason he [Hepburn] supported him although he detested the way he conducted himself. And I think there were some others who did, but one by one people would drop off the Folsom bandwagon simply because they didn't want to be "embarrassed' by their Chief Executive, or they didn't want to see him conducting himself in a way they thought was undignified . . . I guess his support was at its peak in the mid-fifties.
ALLEN J. GOING:
But what about Gordon Persons, How would you evaluate him?—as governor and a political figure?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Gordon was a routine, run-of-the-mine type governor who didn't cause any big problems.
ALLEN J. GOING:
He had risen up through the bureaucracy.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Right, and he wasn't a man who would blaze a new trail; he never went off and said, "We are now going to take this course" and persuade people to follow him. He would go along the way people had already started. And he was not a bad governor, but he was not an exceptional governor either.
ALLEN J. GOING:
He had been, as I understand it, head of REA (Rural Electrification Administration) in Alabama, and some of the country people thought he invented electricity.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, I think that's true. I have a recollection of Dr. Gallalee becoming very much upset because he landed his helicopter out there by the Denny Chimes and said that if he landed there again, he was going to have him arrested even if he was the governor. He thought he was endangering the young people—putting his bird down there in the middle of the campus.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Dr. Gallalee didn't think too much of modern mechanical devices.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No. But Persons, to his credit, I guess, never really tried to create a political machine. When Persons moved out of office, there weren't a great number of people to be taken care of or taken over by somebody else.
ALLEN J. GOING:
It was said, or at least I have read, that he was expected to run again in '58 but that he had a stroke.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
I think that's true. And the only man that I connect with Persons, as a sort of an insider, was Vernon Merritt who was his Executive Secretary or whatever you call the number one man in the campaign. As far as I was concerned, Merritt's greatest achievement was that his mother made beaten biscuits and sold them, and they were real good. But there was no Persons machine. He was a very personable man; his habits were good, and he looked good in comparison with Folsom's habits. But he was not a great politician . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
But, as I think we've mentioned before, beneath the surface we know now, looking back, that the racial problems were brewing; there was increasing pressure for school integration, I mean not in Alabama particularly; but I guess there was a little in Alabama.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
There was a little in Alabama. It was beginning to bubble. After all, the Arthurine Lucy thing didn't just happen over night. It was the sort of thing that built up. And when she came down here—I've forgotten what the pressure groups' names were—but her expenses were paid by some activists; her tuition was paid by one of the groups that Arthur Shores represented. I've forgotten what the name of it was.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I don't know whether he represented the NAACP or not.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Maybe that's who it was. I remember it wasn't her father's check or her check that was cashed; it was furnished by one of the activist groups that paid for the expenses and the tuition—that sort of thing. It was the kind of thing that had begun to come to a head and really boiled over until then. That was what, '58?
ALLEN J. GOING:
No, that was '56. You see, the Brown decision was handed down in '54, but, I think, that decision came too late to affect the elections of 1954 either, well Sparkman ran in 1954 and Folsom ran . . .
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Sparkman was running for a second term, and, as I recall it, he had opposition, but he didn't have any grass-roots opposition up in north Alabama which was where the big vote was.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Laurie Battle and Crommelin were the . . . But he won overwhelmingly, and
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And actually the campaign was enlivened by all the accusations that Admiral Crommelin made, but . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
We've talked about before.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, but they really didn't produce any impact on the voters.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And Folsom won without a runoff over seven candidates. It has been pointed out that this was the first election after Alabama abolished the cumulative poll tax. They still had the poll tax, maybe two-year, but not the cumulative.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well now, that was the election too in which Folsom made his famous speech in which he told a mixed audience . . . He said to the audience, "Now for my black friends in this audience, I want to assure you that I'm not going to require you to go to school with any white children." He also said that he didn't bother to answer any of the bad things that were said about him, his conduct—that sort of thing. He said his mother told him years ago, "If you get mud on your clothes and try to rub it off, you will smear it; but if you let it dry, you can just thump it off." And he said that's the way he was going to do; just let it dry. He was not going to make any defense against those charges that had been filed against him, all of which were probably true.
ALLEN J. GOING:
That's pretty smart politics.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
It's good politics. Just as his suds bucket and mop were good politics. Once one of these country farmers came into the meeting and dropped a dollar into that suds bucket, he had bought his own vote; he was going to vote for Folsom regardless of what happened after having contributed to it.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I just noticed here I had a note that said that after the cumulative poll tax was abolished, almost a third of the voting age population was registered whereas in 1938 it had been only ten percent. I think Virginia Durr said thirteen.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, and I was surprised that it was that small, but I do remember that it was very small.
ALLEN J. GOING:
I don't know where that figure came from, but it did boost the number, and I imagine that practically all of them were white.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
And most of them were women who had just never paid poll tax and didn't bother with it. This gave them a chance to pay two years poll tax and vote. You see they had had the right to vote since, what was it, 1921? Yet they had never exercised it because they never did bother to pay the poll tax.
ALLEN J. GOING:
There was also, of course, prior to the Brown Case and the integration controversy, Persons had to contend with all the trouble over Phenix City, and that's when all of that was coming to a head.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
That's one of the things that marked Persons as a better than average governor. I said awhile ago that he was sort of run-of-the mine; he really wasn't in that respect. He carried out the duties of the office pretty well. He was not colorful, but he knew that that problem over at Phenix City had to be dealt with; and he appointed special prosecutors and got that thing behind us.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And, of course, in the process gave the impetus to the Pattersons.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well, when they finished with the cleanup in Phenix City, the next election, you remember, Albert Patterson was running for Attorney General, and it was believed that that influenced some people to bring about his assassination. Those who were accused of actually having pulled the trigger either were hired gunmen, a gunman, or had some other grievance. The ones behind it were believed to be in state politics, and I recall the situation that came up right after that assassination, everybody sort of turned to John Patterson as the son of the martyred Albert Patterson. And he more or less swept in over George Wallace in '58, and he did it on a completely segregationist ticket. He didn't believe in any mingling of the races, and I would guess that that had as profound effect on state gubernatorial politics as anything that ever happened because it converted George Wallace from a liberal to an out-and-out segregationist. His statement that he "would never be out-niggered again" has been cleaned up and published by the national press as "I'll never be out seged again." But the truth of the matter is that before that time George Wallace had been quite much of a New Dealer.