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Alabama Filmmaker Robert Clem, Atticus Finch, and Big Jim Folsom

by Penne J. Laubenthal

The New Yorker magazine, renowned for its esoteric analyses as well as its eclectic literary pieces recently published a provocative article entitled "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and The Limits of Southern Liberalism."  In the article, the author Malcolm Gladwell draws a comparison between Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird and former governor of Alabama, Big Jim Folsom. Gladwell asserts that, like Atticus Finch, "Folsom operated out of a sense of noblesse oblige." that "Folsom was not a civil-rights activist," and finally that Finch is "much closer to Folsom’s side of the race question than he is to the civil-rights activists who were arriving in the South as Lee wrote her novel."

Robert Clem, an award winning Alabama filmmaker and the head of  Waterfront Pictures, takes issue with the comparison, particularly Gladwell's implication that Folsom belonged more to the camp of the noblesse oblige than to that of a civil-rights activist. Clem is no stranger to Alabama political history. He has produced an award winning film about Big Jim Folsom entitled Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism, along with numerous other award winning documentaries and several dramatic films. Clem is a former fellow of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, Harvard Law School and NYU Film School as well as an award-winning independent filmmaker and producer whose productions have been distributed around the world. In 1991 he founded Radio Action Theater and collaborated with composer Donald Stark to produce radio dramas featuring a distinguished group of actors including Eli Wallach, Ossie Davis, Betty Buckley, Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Michael O’Keefe, David Strathairn, Lois Smith, Jeffery Wright, Will Patton, Jeffery DeMunn and Stacy Keach. Clem has produced, written and directed films appearing on public television, the Arts & Entertainment Network, the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel and networks abroad. (Photo of Robert Clem)

When I talked with Robert Clem this week, he told me that he did not so much disagree with Gladwell's analysis of the character of Atticus Finch as he did his likening Finch's actions to those of Folsom. In response to Malcolm Gladwell's article, Clem sent the following letter to the New Yorker.

"As one who has made documentary films on both Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom and his successor John Patterson, I have to respond to Malcolm Gladwell's essay on postwar Alabama politics and race. Contrary to Gladwell's assertion (citing George Sims), Folsom in fact did seek a fundamental shift in political power in the state, completely ignoring the 'courthouse rings' and patrician families who had ruled the state since the end of Reconstruction (I doubt very much that Atticus Finch would have been a Folsomite). Folsom's 1946 grass roots campaign came out of nowhere, shocked the state's political establishment and led to an incessant campaign by the state's major newspapers to undermine him (Gladwell's comment that the press was not always affectionate towards Folsom is a vast understatement). To say that Folsom acted out of a sense of 'noblesse oblige', hoping that privileged whites would look more kindly toward blacks, is laughable. Folsom relentlessly attacked the privileged class. He argued that the politics of race came from the ruling class, who used it divide poor whites from poor blacks, which together made up a vast majority of the state's population. As long as blacks were held down, he would say, poor whites would be held down as well.

" Gladwell seems to think that Folsom's campaign to register more black people, oppose voting restrictions for both whites and blacks, and his open calls for economic and political equality for blacks did not make him a civil rights activist. Folsom knew that the most important civil right -- the door to all others -- was the right to vote. (Gladwell criticizes Folsom for having a 'separate but equal' inaugural ball for blacks -- the first time blacks had been invited to any inauguration since the 1870s -- but would they have wanted to listen to Guy Lombardo?) When the Brown decision came down shortly after he was re-elected in 1954, Folsom had the courage to veto the legislature's attempts to circumvent the law, to encourage the leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott and finally -- in a symbolic act which caused his popularity with whites to plummet -- to have a drink at the governor's mansion with Adam Clayton Powell when he came to the state for a voter registration drive, even lending Powell the governor's limousine to use during his visit.

"To equate Atticus Finch's decision to represent a black man with Folsom's blatant support for Negro civil rights is nonsense. To Kill a Mockingbird does seem to reflect an air of 'noblesse oblige' and a disdain for 'rednecks' such as Robert E. Lee Ewell and his daughter Mayella. Folsom had no such disdain. 'Rednecks' were an important part of his constituency. He hoped they would understand that in the postwar South, issues of class were more important than issues of race. Atticus Finch suffers little for his consenting to give a black man his Constitutional right to a fair trial. Folsom was by no means a perfect governor, but no one should question his courageous support for black civil rights, or the dire political price he paid for it."  Robert Clem

Robert Clem's film Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism, was the winner of the 1997 International Documentary Association/ABCNews VideoSource Award. The film examines the history and politics of the South in the decade and a half following the end of World War II, as seen through the story of Alabama's colorful governor James E. "Big Jim" Folsom.

Waterfront Pictures has the following to say about the film and its protagonist, Big Jim Folsom.

"Starting his campaign for governor in 1946 with $100, Folsom was laughed at for his hillbilly band, country airs and ragtag group of supporters, including a young amateur boxer named George C. Wallace. Folsom’s shocking victory overturned the planter/big business oligarchy that had ruled the state since Reconstruction, giving hope to the state's poor majority.

"Like earlier populists such as Huey Long, Folsom was audacious enough to promote the economic and political rights of poor blacks as well as whites. But by the 1940s and 50s, this was a dangerous course. When he refused to oppose the Supreme Court’s desegregation decree in 1954, the die was cast. When he thumbed his nose at his opponents by inviting Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell to the governor’s mansion for a drink, his former ally George Wallace formally broke ranks with him, setting his own course for the politics of race. The state’s major newspapers, which had never supported Folsom to begin with, refused to cooperate with his efforts to mediate the state’s escalating racial crisis. The increasing corruption among those around him further eroded his power and Folsom was considered a has-been when he left office in 1959.

"But Folsom was ready for one last stand in 1962, when his principal opponent would be Wallace, now fully committed to the segregationist cause. Folsom would lose whatever chance he had when he appeared drunk on statewide television the night before the election -- possibly the result of a‘mickey’ provided by someone on the opposing side. Wallace was elected and vowed that racial segregation would last ‘forever’. "

A dvd of Big Jim Folsom: the Two Faces of Populism can be purchased on the Waterfront Pictures web site along with other films. Clem's most recent documentary Eugene Walter: The Last of the Bohemians was screened at the George Lindsey Film Festival in Florence, Alabama, this spring. Watch Swampland for a review of this fascinating film about the enigmatic Eugene Walter, as well as an interview with filmmaker Robert Clem.

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