Going through some old files over last weekend, I came across a long, as yet unpublished essay — about 8,700 words worth — I wrote nearly a decade ago. The instigating event was a late fall camping trip with two good friends. An annual outing in which we visited a different corner of Alabama each year, something about this particular trip through southwest Alabama prompted me to pen a piece that turned out to be part twisted travelogue, part offhand history lesson and part rumination on the legacy of greed, corruption and exploitation that has kept our beautiful state backward and in poverty for so long.
The sad thing — the thing that prompted me to excerpt a couple of passages from my essay in lieu of a column this week — is that it’s 10 years later, and the words could have been written this morning.
Just southwest of Coffeeville on U.S. 84, we cross the Tombigbee again, via the Jim Folsom Bridge. Immediately upon landing in Choctaw County, A.B. takes a hard left onto a dirt road that runs parallel to the river. A little ways in, we park and hike through tall grass to the riverbank. While A.B. wanders off in search of a good angle for photographing the bridge, Earl and I pick beggar-lice off our clothes and take the sun. I say something that seems writerly-sounding about the juxtaposition of natural beauty and economic deprivation in these parts.
“Yeah,” Earl says, pausing for a few seconds before he puts me in the shade: “These folks have seen the hand of God, and it moves fast.”
Excluding largely urbanized Jefferson and Tuscaloosa, the counties we’ve traveled through up to this point have an average poverty rate in the 25 percent range. It was Jesus Himself who said the poor would be with us always, but knowing of other opinions that rabble-rouser held on the subject of the downtrodden, I feel sure it was meant as a lamentation and not a rationale for governmental policy. But you wouldn’t know that if you went by Alabama, and I find it discouragingly appropriate to be here amidst some of the state’s poorest areas, admiring a public work named after the last of our governors to try and do more than pay lip service to uplifting the common man.
Big Jim Folsom was a true force of nature, a larger-than-life amalgam of apostle and sinner. He rose to prominence from the left of the New Deal, railing against the “Big Mules,” the alliance of Black Belt landowners and financial and industrial interests in Birmingham. That unholy confederacy made vast fortunes exploiting Alabama’s natural and human resources, and expended lesser ones to purchase a grasp on our political machinery that remains unyielding. Folsom was elected to the first of two non-consecutive terms in 1946 — Alabama governors could not succeed themselves in those days, and he won again in 1954 — on a platform that called for nothing less than a radical redistribution of wealth and power.
Folsom wanted to reapportion the state legislature, revise the Alabama Constitution of 1901, abolish the sales tax, increase old-age pensions and teacher salaries, and pave “farm-to-market” roads to facilitate small-business commerce. As if all that weren’t revolutionary enough, when a markedly biracial crowd of 100,000 plain folk lined the streets of Montgomery for his inaugural parade, Big Jim had the temerity to invite white and black alike into the Capitol building for the hoedown after the swearing-in.
It doesn’t take much of a look around Alabama to see that we’re still waiting for the kind of progressive reforms Folsom had in mind — a point compellingly demonstrated by the fact that we’re still operating under the 1901 constitution. That his administrations mostly failed to deliver reform is popularly attributed to Big Jim’s utter lack of political or personal self-discipline, the latter evinced most notably by his unabashed fondness for intoxicating spirits and pretty girls.
That assessment is accurate as far as it goes, which is not far enough. Peccadilloes aside, Folsom’s political life can be read as a cautionary tale of what happens when a long-established ruling class feels its power threatened. It wasn’t his bent for buffoonery that scared the Big Mules, but rather his deeply held belief in democracy.
A man of the people in the truest sense of the term, Big Jim understood on an elemental level the seismic social changes which would occur if Alabama’s poor blacks and poor whites could ever be united around their vast commonalities. To a power structure whose control of the state rested in no small measure — and rests still — on the festering of racial fears, that made Folsom a dangerous man indeed. The extent to which his private behavior contributed to his public destruction makes him a tragic figure, but the persistence of the same fundamental problems he aspired to redress makes it clear that the real tragedy is ours. …
And what of Alabama? Our land is beautiful, our people are gracious, and yet we have one of the sorriest histories of atrocity and exploitation and stagnation imaginable. Why? What has held us back, and what continues to impede us? We know, or at least suspect, the answers to these questions, and yet significant social and political changes elude us. When we start to measure the ways in which we’re better off and worse off than we were four or 10 or 50 or a 100 years ago — or expect to be any number of years from now — we wind up with the scales roughly and disappointingly balanced.
Undeniably, Alabama has “progressed,” in the accepted 21st century sense of the term. But toward what end, to whose benefit, and at what cost? The treatment of malignancy in our heritage and culture has purged the salutary as well, surely and steadily eroding our ability to define and signify ourselves by our own devices.
Of course, that’s the way of the cosmos, so maybe I’m making too much of the fate of this little corner of it. Alabama has been under siege from all sides, without and within, since time immemorial. We’ve been assaulted from every angle conceivable — physically, intellectually, economically, spiritually — by folks with the best of intentions and folks with the worst, and it looks to me like we’re finally about to succumb. I just happen to think that, on balance, that’s a damn shame, for which the only real consolation is taking time to appreciate the fact that we’ve made it this long with some semblance of unreconstructed distinctiveness intact.
For now, then, here we are. Here we are.