By Steve Flowers
The 1962 governor’s race really began in 1958. The governor’s office and the race for it was the big show in Alabama politics in that era. Being a U.S. senator was secondary in Alabama politics. Governor is still probably the most important and glamorous political position today, but it certainly was at that time.
Television had not come into its own. Most Alabamians didn’t own a television. There were no Southern Major League Baseball teams to follow, such as the Atlanta Braves, who were still in Milwaukee. The closest team was the St. Louis Cardinals and they were miles away and not really in the South. The Grand Ole Opry was only on the radio Saturday night. Therefore, Southerners had to include politics as a prime source of entertainment.
That probably explains why we had such colorful political characters. They were really our entertainers and in some cases real clowns. We certainly had more entertaining politicians than the rest of the country. We had a legacy of Jimmy Davis and Huey Long in Louisiana, Bilbo in Mississippi, Talmadge in Georgia, and the most colorful of all time was our very own Big Jim Folsom.
Big Jim was the most uninhibited, gregarious, fun-loving of them all. He traveled the state with his country band the “Strawberry Pickers.” Alabamians thought Big Jim’s barefoot musical antics and down-home soaking the rich speeches spiced with country humor were better than the circus coming to town. Big Jim was first elected governor in 1946. He upset the Big Mules of Birmingham and the Big Planters of the Black Belt to become the first people’s governor in 50 years.
All 12 governors before him had been picked in the closed door board rooms of Birmingham. They were well heeled Big Mules or Big Planters who went out and gave dull speeches and simply bought the election with corporate and large agricultural money. However, Big Jim went directly to the country people all over the state.
Most people in Alabama at that time were rural or lived in small towns. Big Jim convinced them he was their friend. He won their hearts. He became the youngest and most progressive Alabama governor in history. He was the little man’s big friend. However, the governor couldn’t succeed himself. It was one four-year term and you were out. So Big Jim left after four years, 1946-1950.
A quaint aristocrat named Gordon Persons became governor from 1950-1954, but Big Jim came storming back to win a landslide victory in 1954. He won without a runoff despite the fact that most of the state’s big daily newspapers endorsed other people and predicted he would lose. He became only the second person to be elected to two terms. Bibb Graves had done it earlier in the century.
Big Jim served his second term from 1954-1958 then waited out another four years and was running for his third term in 1962. He was legendary by this time and had almost unanimous name identification as simply “Big Jim.” However, he was up against another populist and maybe even better politician, George Wallace.
Wallace had run his first race for governor in 1958 and lost to John Patterson. Patterson beat Wallace for two reasons. First was sympathy for Patterson resulting from his daddy’s assassination at the hands of the Phenix City mafia, but primarily it was because Patterson was the most ardent racist and segregationist. Patterson was the candidate of the Ku Klux Klan and race was the issue in 1958. Wallace was considered the moderate, but Wallace woke up the day after the defeat and swore he would never be out-segged again.
After Wallace’s loss to Patterson in 1958, he worked tirelessly for the next four years, 1958-1962, while Patterson served his only term as governor. Wallace made sure he was the racist segregationist candidate.
Next week we will pick up with the 1962 governor’s race. Wallace entered the race as the favorite and he indeed garnered his first gubernatorial victory that year.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.