“Perhaps the best way of encapsulating the gist of an epoch is to focus not on the explicit features that define its social and ideological edifices, but on the disavowed ghosts that haunt it, dwelling in a mysterious region of nonexistent entities which nonetheless persist, continuing to exert their efficacy.” – Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute
It’s difficult to write obituaries of people like Jesse Helms or Mayor Joe Smitherman of Selma. You’re talking about men who ended up on the wrong side of history. You’re talking about people who, whether their crimes were legal or moral (or both), or even forgivable, still leave this world with families that care about them. And even the most objectionable of that bad lot, say, Richard Nixon or George Wallace, still were, beneath the accumulated iconography, men who went into public service with an idea of improving their communities and working on behalf of those they saw as their constituencies.
This has always been true for the humble writer of the villain’s obituary, juggling historical perspective, balancing the good deeds with various atrocities, writing with an honest voice without seeming to be ghoulishly dancing on the graves of the recently deceased. That’s why some batch of scribes is going to soon have to parse through the reprehensible career of a highly-respected war criminal like Henry Kissinger. To have any ethics at all, we’ve got to make judgments about these fallible (and usually proud) humans.
This is especially dicey when you’re dealing with people who were famous back before social attitudes underwent some kind of massive transformation. There can be all sorts of quibbles with understanding someone’s life “within the proper context.”
Allen Tullos, in his book Alabama Getaway, writes about the ghost of George Wallace, making extended reference to the brilliant work of the Drive-By Truckers. Tullos writes about the Truckers’ song, “Wallace,” which posits that even if Wallace’s vile racism wasn’t genuine, pandering to evil in order to get votes is still sufficient to earn a person eternal damnation.
“Concerning Emory Folmar, the mayor of Montgomery, there is no middle ground. To a substantial majority of Montgomerians, he is the greatest thing ever to happen to their city. He attracts from them a Wallace-like loyalty. Then there is the vocal minority who see Emory Folmar as a power-hungry racist who would turn Montgomery into a veritable police state.” — Alabama Magazine, December 1980
Emory Folmar was a heavily decorated Korean War vet. He was a millionaire who made his fortune in construction. He built shopping centers. And he was mayor of Montgomery from 1977 until 1999.
He was a legendary hard worker. He was also no friend to free thinkers, nor to Montgomery’s African-American community. He was a constant nemesis of the city’s black leaders, notably Joe Reed, who was then on the city council, and was (and is still) the head of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black wing of the state’s Democratic party.
Media accounts of Folmar’s tenure as mayor have mostly focused on his gruff personality and his incredible work ethic. He was a stickler for details and would often accompany city employees on their most routine tasks. And certainly there’s a double edge to the idea that he’d ride along with garbage crews, making sure they were picking up trash properly. On the one hand, he wanted the citizens of Montgomery to be receiving top-tier service from their tax dollars. On the other hand, there’s a certain point where “salt of the Earth” becomes Helicopter Boss.
Folmar and Race
It was 1982. No sitting president had been to Montgomery since Jefferson Davis. But Folmar was a Republican back before that was Alabama’s dominant political orthodoxy. So when Folmar backed Reagan in 1980, the Gipper repaid the favor by coming to Alabama and addressing the sitting Alabama Legislature. Rep. Alvin Holmes, who still represents Montgomery at the Statehouse, walked out of Reagan’s speech. The event seems like a microcosm of where Montgomery was in terms of racial harmony.
Still, Folmar valued law and order more than he valued white supremacy. The Mayor was on the scene in 1979 to order the arrest of nearly 200 Klansmen as they marched from Selma into the city limits without a permit. News reports from the time highlight the fact that the mayor, sporting his pistol, stood alongside the police in their riot gear.
Nonetheless, the city under Folmar remained extremely racially polarized, as noted by some electoral reporting in the Times Daily on Oct. 12, 1983:
“Supported by an organization of more than 3,000 campaign workers, Mayor Emory Folmar trounced challenger Franklin James Tuesday in an election that revealed a clear division between white and black voters.”
Folmar won that election by a count of 32,734 to 23,149 (58 percent to 41 percent), but it was a high-profile battle. Nearly 50 percent of the registered voters in the city voted.
Montgomery was then 40 percent black, but, according to the article, Folmar barely campaigned in the city’s black districts. Still, he somehow got 20 percent of the city’s black vote. The Times Daily article waits to the end to explicitly state the subtext of the campaign:
“While Folmar denied he was making an issue of race, his campaign literature and his radio ads repeatedly asserted that James would allow “radicals” to run the city. Those “radical forces” he named – city councilmen Donald Watkins and Joe Reed and state Rep. Alvin Holmes – are black.”
And it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was under Folmar that Montgomery experienced the notorious “Todd Road Incident.” An excellent 30-minute documentary about the incident can be seen here, but this racially-charged tragedy will forever be linked to Folmar, not just the officers in question. Folmar and the city went to court to try to force the officers to submit to questioning about the incident. Folmar ultimately fired the officers, but the city was torn apart by the fallout from the incident.
Development of the City
Folmar was defeated in 1999 by a prison guard-turned-lawyer named Bobby Bright. Bright and current mayor Todd Strange spent years of their terms (and millions of tax dollars) repairing downtown Montgomery. During the 1980s, the whole center of the city became a bombed out and abandoned wellspring of fear. Sure, some of that was caused by white flight and sprawl, factors too large to be caused by a single mayor. Yet, the focused efforts of Bright and Strange (which we admire and mostly support) demonstrate that concentrated leadership in the area of urban development can make a difference. When we moved to Montgomery, there was a near total consensus that downtown was just emerging from a time in which it was a decimated wasteland. Even if some of the credit for Riverwalk redevelopment goes to Folmar (as Mayor Strange said during some of the memorializing), it must also be true that Folmar could have stopped some of the creeping blight before it reached the tragic levels that it did.
One would think that a person from the construction industry would have seen and corrected the ongoing and worsening disrepair of Garrett Coliseum. One would think that someone who made a fortune building shopping malls would have been more attuned to the withering and death of the Montgomery Mall, which remains an abandoned eyesore at the southern entrance to the city.
Like Zizek says in the epigraph to this piece, Folmar (with his focus on the east side of the city) still haunts downtown’s boarded up buildings and the undeniably heart-breaking impoverishment of the city’s west side.
The First Republican
It is a now-familiar thesis in political science circles that George Wallace made people like Newt Gingrich possible. Although a Democrat, Wallace carved out a template for a brand of populism that Republicans used to engineer their 1994 rise to national power. Among the hallmarks of this political mode of being: a resentful contempt for softness, a chest-thumping support for a militant foreign policy, and a toxic distrust of elites, intellectuals, and “special interest” minorities.
Long before dimwits like Ann Coulter showed up on the public radar, Folmar was quoted saying things like:
“You turned the media people loose on me, saying that I had a Reagan-Bush sticker on my car as though it was a city car. I own that car. I furnish my own gas, my own tires … I can do with it what I damn please. I want to let you know that this was the beginning of a long war against what I consider liberals. And anytime one of you liberals gets in my sights, I’m going for the kill and I’m taking no prisoners. You liberal do-gooders have damn near destroyed this country and here is one who is going to do all he’s big enough to do to make damn sure you don’t get your hands on the throttle again. That’s what I told her … No, this war’s not ever going to be over.”
We already noted his stumping for Reagan, and it’s hard for young people to remember what the nation’s climate involved at that time: Afghanistan, ICBMs and the missile gap, AIDS, the explosion of crack cocaine, fear of the Japanese economy, Iran-Contra, the savings and loan crisis, and dozens of other issues that don’t make much sense to contemporary ahistorical minds.
Most Republicans in this era were exceptions to the political rule. Alabama, while conservative, was still part of the “solid South.” Democrats didn’t lose control of the Legislature until 2010. Republicans back then were simply ahead of their time, and it took a while for the national partisan trends to catch up to the groundwork plowed by men like Folmar.
As a Republican, Folmar ran against George Wallace in the gubernatorial campaign of 1982. Wallace had done his whole “repent and apologize” routine for the racist unpleasantness of previous decades and also was operating on some sympathy because a would-be assassin had put him in a wheelchair. In his indispensable book, Black in Selma, a legendary civil rights lawyer tells this interesting story about the Wallace-Folmar campaign:
When he beat MacMillan (in the primary), Wallace came seeking (the Alabama Democratic Conference’s) endorsement in the general election against Emory Folmar, the Republican mayor of Montgomery. Joe Louis Reed, the chairman of ADC, usually called the shots on the state and national endorsements, but this was one decision he didn’t want to make by himself. Joe called about twenty ADC leaders from around the state to come to Montgomery to meet with Wallace the next day in the boardroom of the Alabama Education Association, the state teachers’ union where Joe works. We were all sitting around the big conference table when Wallace — smoking a big cigar — came in with a black man pushing his wheelchair.
He started talking his usual stuff about how he was a populist. He and his family had been dirt poor. He’d built trade schools, raised teachers’ salaries. Emory Folmar was nothing but a damn “Republican chief of police” running around looking for some black heads to whip. He said he wanted us to make a statement endorsing him. He thought it would make a difference.
Somebody said they didn’t think the race would even be close. There weren’t that many Republicans in the state of Alabama except when electing a president.
“In all my years in politics, I’ve never taken a race for granted,” Wallace responded.
Wallace was correct that we weren’t going to ask black people to vote for Emory Folmar, who was so right-wing, some folk in Montgomery called him the mayoratollah. He liked to strap on a pistol and ride to the scenes of crimes with the policemen. More than one black had been shot or injured by the Montgomery police under questionable circumstances, and the black community there deeply disliked him.” — J.L. Chestnut, Black in Selma, p. 334-5
Statewide candidacy rebuffed, Folmar later threw in his lot with Fob James, running Fob’s failure of a campaign against Don Siegelman in 1998. Fob, the sitting Governor at the time, was famous for agitating for prayer in schools and two terms of states rights-themed meanness. James was trounced by Siegelman, the last time that the Democrats managed to win a race for the executive office. Among the highlights from that campaign, Folmar said he “laid a trap” for Winton Blount, James’ challenger in the GOP primary, by having Richard Arrington (the black mayor of Birmingham) endorse Blount. That’s right: For Folmar, it was a strike against you if a black person endorsed you.
Folmar was also famous for always being in shape. He was a high school football star and worked out regularly, maintaining a trim and muscular figure throughout his public life (as noted in the picture above). And in some ways, this is an appropriate metaphor for state partisan politics. The lean and trim GOP, made sharp by year in exile, ultimately destroyed, perhaps permanently, the state Democratic Party that had gotten over-confident, lazy, and bloated from years of control.
And then there is the pistol. Every story about Folmar mentions the fact that he packed heat. He said it was because there were threats on his life. Evidently somebody shot out the windows of his car a couple of times. And there certainly seemed to be no lack of bravado from the Marine who killed Koreans during the Truman administration. Many folks seemed to cringe at the primitive Wild West image of a pistol-packing mayor. But others took pride. Folmar was a “man’s man,” showing up many mornings when police did their first roll call. He’d be out there at the scenes of traffic wrecks and crimes, embodying the idea that this was his city, and he had the loaded sidearm to back it up if need be.
Needless to say, it’s extremely difficult to imagine an elected official behaving in this way today. Nothing says “good place for economic development” like a city with a mayor always prepared to draw down on his many foes.
Also while running that James campaign, Folmar appeared on a local TV show called “Good Morning Montgomery.” According to an Associated Press article that ran in the Tuscaloosa News on Christmas Eve 1997, someone called into the show to complain about being harassed outside a Montgomery nightclub.
Evidently, the person was gay and the nightclub in question was a gay club. The Mayor called the person a queer.
“I said something to the effect of if you didn’t all hang out together there wouldn’t be a problem.”
To its credit, the Tuscaloosa News slammed Folmar’s comment in the opinion page of the same issue in which it reported the story. And Folmar, for his part, was fully unapologetic about using the slur.
A report complaining that Folmar refused to meet with gay residents or support city AIDS services quoted the Mayor as saying, “I used the word queer and I’ll use it again. I’m not going to call them gay. I don’t approve of their lifestyle one bit.”
Oh, and evidently at one point he described AIDS deaths as “self-inflicted wounds.”
Truly, it was a simpler time.
And then there’s this gem of an AP that ran in the Times Daily on March 5, 1988:
Police broke up a punk-rock concert that Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar described as a “Satanic event,” sending about 100 disappointed teenagers home without making any arrests.
Um, what? Wow. The ’80s were crazy. We wish there were punk rock shows at The Capri. Well, except for the part where the police raid the place and ruin everything.
The article quotes Capri Theater Director Martin McCaffery as saying, “The kids at the show had much better manners than the police.” He continues:
“After a fishing expedition through our trash cans — which the police videotaped — they found a few empty beer cans, most of which were in there because we confiscated them.”
Police said they showed up because McCaffery rented the theater to someone without a business license. “That’s not usually handled with 30 cops and a paddy wagon,” McCaffery said.
And that wasn’t the last clash between Folmar’s regime and the Capri. It’s hard to fathom now, but religious right protesters flipped out over a movie called The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. Folmar and then-Gov. Guy Hunt led a “Stand Up for Jesus” protest march, although they declined McCaffery’s invitation to actually view the film that they were making into political hay.
And that sort of thing was sort of par for the course under Folmar. Numerous people that lived in Montgomery under the Folmar regime remember a string of rock concerts that were ruined (if not banned) by the mayor. It wasn’t that Folmar hated music or the arts — he was partly responsible for bringing the Shakespeare Festival to Montgomery. It was just that he saw young people (and black people) as disrespectful troublemakers and he didn’t want their loud rock music happening in his town (to say nothing of the explosion of hip-hop that was sweeping the rest of the nation in the 1980s).
And in some ways, maybe that’s one of the good things about Folmar’s legacy. He created a counter-cultural opposition. Youth culture can be forged in some memorable fires when your mayor is a dour, gun carrying enemy of fun. Folmar, the glowering gay bashing Reaganite, may have unintentionally given rise to new and interesting forms of cultural opposition. It’s certainly a more revolutionary climate when your mayor is trying to use the city’s toolbox to actively suppress fun and art — versus having the mayor trying to use fun and art as mechanisms to fuel economic development.
Still, that seems like little solace to the actual victims at the time. If you were gay and felt like your mayor hated you, or were black in the birthplace of the civil rights movement and felt like you were still ghettoized, you’re not going to take a lot of comfort in the fact that some skateboarding teen has a convenient nemesis. Hunter S. Thompson got a lot of mileage out Nixon’s evil, but at the end of the day, those kids in Vietnam were still dead.
All told, I think the legacy of Emory Folmar shows us how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. He seems to have run this town for over two decades in a manner similar to that in which the principal in The Breakfast Club ran the school. He was a hardline authoritarian who probably loved (parts of) Montgomery in equal proportion to his contempt for those who had differing visions of reality.
Good mayors like Bright and Strange seem to understand that it takes a lot of effort to ensure that rising tides lift all boats. The city has a heap of problems on its plate, many of which defy easy solutions. And every one of which will need more than a single mayor to properly tackle. We’re all in this together.
But reflecting on the life and times of Emory Folmar may well give us a map of where we’re going, as much as where we’ve been.
Since Folmar brought the Shakespeare Festival to Montgomery (lured it here from Anniston, where it ran from 1972-1984) perhaps it’s fitting to end this obituary with a quote from Mark Antony’s legendary eulogy of Caesar:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.