It is hard to believe it has been 60 years since George Wallace’s first victorious race for governor. Let’s go down memory lane and reminisce about the 1962 governor’s race and Wallace’s classic inaugural victory.
The 1962 governor’s race really began in 1958. The governor’s chair 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, but it certainly was at that time. Television had not come into its own. Most Alabamians did not own a TV. There were no southern major league baseball teams to follow, such as the Atlanta Braves, who were still in Milwaukee at that time. 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 on Saturday night. So, southerners had to include politics as a prime source of entertainment. That is why we had such colorful political characters. They were really our entertainers and, in some cases, real clowns. Thus, we 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, the Talmadges in Georgia, and the most colorful of all time was our very own 6’9” 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 and had been well heeled Big Mules or Big Planters and had gone out and given dull speeches and simply bought the election with corporate and large agricultural money. Big Jim went directly to the country people all over the state and most people in Alabama at that time were rural or lived in small towns. He convinced them that 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 could not 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,” but he was up against another populist and maybe even better politician, George Wallace.
George Wallace had run his first race for governor in 1958 and lost to John Patterson. Patterson had beaten 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 because Patterson was the most ardent racist and segregationist. Patterson was the candidate of the 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 George Wallace’s loss to John Patterson in 1958, Wallace 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 in 1962.
Race was the only issue in the 1962 governor’s race. Wallace rode the race issue to his first victory as governor, defeating Big Jim Folsom and State Senator Ryan DeGraffenreid of Tuscaloosa. That 1962 race had an interesting, entertaining, and historical twist to it.
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 www.steveflowers.us.