What is Huey Long's Legacy?
The Kingfish's Domain
(In the context of discussing 20th century South, this post includes some very racist language.)
Recently there was a discussion on Twitter about the political orientation of Louisiana governor (and later Senator) Huey P. Long, namely whether or not he was “right-wing” or “left-wing.” For much of American history, I think those labels are awkward fit and they probably can only be applied with consistency after F.D.R.’s presidency, which Long’s governorship pre-dated. But because of Long’s redistributive policies and populist rhetoric there is often a desire to read him as a primarily left-wing phenomenon or at least having some admirable qualities from a left-leaning perspective. I did quite a bit of research on Long for my book’s chapter on David Duke and Louisiana, and I came away with a pretty negative interpretation of the man afterwards.
Even by the abysmal standards of Reconstruction and the Gilded age, the elite that ruled Louisiana was exceptionally corrupt, self-dealing, and irresponsible. They had seized power in one of the most violent coups of the post-Reconstruction wave of reaction. So indifferent was the agricultural and commercial oligarchy to the plight of its underlings that one observer in the late 1870s bitterly remarked, that, from the perspective of the grandees, the soil and its tillers appeared as “the same mass, and beneath…respect and relief.” Instead of making even modest improvements for the benefit of the public, the ruling factions preferred to devise schemes to divide up the state’s wealth. The end of Reconstruction saw the state dominated by an unholy combination of the Bourbon faction, the most racist and reactionary section of the Democratic party, representing the interests of cotton planters, and the corrupt urban machine that administered the state lottery. The Bourbons contributed muscle in the form of the Klan and other paramilitary groups to terrorize newly enfranchised Black voters, while the machine contributed the cash to bribe to legislators. This syndicate of unbridled reaction and naked greed is best epitomized by the lottery’s practice of trotting out aging Confederate generals during drawings to launder the proceedings in the eyes of the public.
W.E.B. DuBois wrote in Black Reconstruction in America that the “The history of Louisiana…reads like a Chinese puzzle who forget the great forces below. Beneath the witch’s cauldron of political chicanery, it is difficult to remember the great mass of white and black labor, the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Louisiana, groping for light, and seldom finding expression.” When it did find expression, the Bourbon oligarchy was quick to tamp it down. In 1896, a fusion ticket of Populist farmers in the North and Republicans mounted the first serious challenge to the rule of the Bourbons. Although the oligarchy was able through force and fraud to get most of the majority black parishes’ votes to save the party of white supremacy, the ruling party decided that the loyalty of black voters to the Republican Party and the Populist efforts to court black votes meant their continued enfranchisement was too dangerous.
In 1898, the Bourbons promulgated a new constitution with the express purpose of limiting voting. In 1897 there were 130,344 registered black voters in the state, almost equal to the number of registered white voters; by 1904, there were just 1,342. Ultimately this would be an example of the regime’s cruelty and short-sightedness winning out over the cold calculation of its political self-interest. By disenfranchising blacks, the junta would come to deny its of one of their main tools to swamp its opponents: votes it could fraudulently manipulate. Since poor whites had formed the backbone of the Populist insurgency, their franchise had to be broken too, and this was accomplished, although not quite as dramatically. By 1904, white registration was nearly half of what it was in 1898. What small amount of democracy that existed in Louisiana was effectively snuffed out by this one-party state.
Huey Pierce Long Jr. was born in 1893 into the barren Protestant North, in Winn parish, the center of populist resistance to Bourbon rule. During the Civil War, Winn parish had opposed secession. In the election of 1908, a plurality of the parish’s votes would go to the Socialist Eugene Debs. In the course of political career, Huey liked to talk about his hardscrabble upbringing in rural poverty, but although Winn parish was one of the poorest places in a poor state, the Longs were a prosperous landowning family. Through proximity to the desperation of his neighbors Huey developed a sense of outrage against social injustice—either out of genuine sympathy or a keen sense of political opportunity, probably a bit of both.
Long began his career as a door-to-door salesman selling cotton-seed oil. He then took up law and represented mostly the poor against the rich. In 1918, at age 25, he got himself elected to the Railroad Commission by touring the countryside in an automobile, no small feat considering there were virtually no paved rural roads at the time. The Commission, which had purview over telegraphs, telephone, pipelines and utilities as well as railroads, was a mostly moribund and compliant institution before Huey’s ascension. By improving services and lowering fees where he could, he was able to turn his office into an activist tool of the public interest and a center of his own political power. In 1920, he helped get the modestly reformist Democrat John M. Parker elected governor, but then later acrimoniously broke with Parker over what Long declared was an overly accommodating stance to the big corporations, particularly Standard Oil, the goliath company that became Huey’s great foil. (Just to give a picture of the state of Louisiana politics at the time: Parker, who was considered a progressive, had been involved in the lynching of a group of 11 Italian laborers in New Orleans; he never expressed any regret for the act.)
In 1923, Huey mounted a surprisingly strong Democratic primary campaign, but fell short. The collapse of progressivism and populism had led to the rise of the second Klan, particularly in the northern Protestant parishes that Huey counted on for support, and Long, never above duplicity in the pursuit of power, awkwardly tried to split the difference on the Klan issue, endearing himself neither to its supporters nor its opponents. In 1928, when Huey mounted his second run, the Klan had faded from prominence and with it all the sundry sectional, ethnic, and religious differences that once seemed of paramount importance in the politics of Louisiana. Only one divide remained and mattered: that between haves and have-nots. Huey handily captured all the poorest sections of the state, whether they were Catholic or Protestant, Creole or Anglo-Saxon. Through the issue of wealth and class, Huey Long had solved DuBois’s “Chinese Puzzle.” But although he effectively used the rhetoric of class warfare, the most destitute citizens of the state, white and especially black, were still effectively disenfranchised. Long’s base of support came from small-holding white farmers, rather than the proletarian masses, a fact which would influence who received relief under his regime.
Huey Long’s populism made no provision for union protection, child labor laws (he said picking cotton was “fun” for kids), or unemployment insurance. Part of the Long legend is that he distinguished himself from other southern populist demagogues by avoiding race-baiting, but the reality is much less flattering. He nixed old age pensions on the grounds that too much money would go to blacks. In the United States Senate, he opposed federal anti-lynching legislation. “I can’t do nothing about it no, sir. Can’t do the dead nigra no good.” Louisiana would retain one of the worst records of lynching in the country. During his governorship, black voter registration actually declined while white registration rose after the abolition of the poll tax. It’s true that state’s black citizens did benefit from some of Long’s program, but their status in Longite Louisiana is perhaps best summarized through his brother Earl’s gimmick of tossing coins to children while campaigning: he said he would give out “a quarter to the white kids and a nickel to the niggers.”
When Long snuck an extra oil tax into an unrelated bill early in his governorship, the remaining conservative faction in the legislature tried to impeach him, and nearly succeeded. In 1935, after he added a 5-cent surcharge to the tax, Standard Oil fired 3,800 employees from its Baton Rouge plant. A group of mostly white collar laid-off workers and sundry anti-Longite elements led by the improbably named Standard Oil strikebreaker Ernest Bourgeois gathered in Baton Rouge to form the Square Deal Association, apparently with at least the tacit approval of Standard Oil. The Square Dealers attempted a rather pathetic armed uprising in Baton Rouge. By this time Huey’s power was fully entrenched. Long instructed his toady, governor O.K. Allen, to call up the national guard and impose martial law. The Square Dealers capitulated without a fight.
Nor was this the only time Long imposed martial law. He had earlier done the same in New Orleans to ensure the result of a contested election, an even more brazen violation of democratic norms than the Baton Rouge incident. These strong-arm tactics earned Long the admiration of America’s fascists, who saw in Long a folksy Führer or Duce. Lawrence Dennis wrote, “I think Long’s smarter than Hitler, but he needs a good brain trust…He needs a Goebbels.” The furiously anti-Semitic pastor Gerald L.K. Smith apparently wished to take that role, insinuating himself into Long’s inner circle, wearing the man’s old suits, and even sleeping at the foot of his bed, according to rumors. Smith gave Long’s funeral eulogy to a crowd of 150,000 in Baton Rouge and would go on to lead Long’s Share Our Wealth campaign and forge alliances with Father Coughlin and the America First Party, but despite his talents as an orator he never could replicate political success of his master.
Long certainly exhibited the Machiavellianism of a fascist chieftain if not the ideological and aesthetic trappings. Even as he assailed Standard Oil in the press and accused them of trying to depose and assassinate him, Long negotiated a compromise with the company to rebate most of the tax if the company would agree to use at least 80 percent oil drilled in Louisiana at its Baton Rouge refinery. Many of Huey’s close backers were independent oil producers who would benefit from such a deal. In fact, Long had formed his own company, The Win or Lose Oil Company, to sell and lease state land to oil drillers, an arrangement that would go on to provide hefty profits for descendants of Long and his cronies well into the 21st century.
The fact of the matter is that the basis of Long’s regime was white supremacy: his main constituency were the petit blancs, the small-holding white farmers and shopkeepers, and any benefits that went to blacks were incidental, an afterthought. He did not attempt to build up labor power and even frustrated its development. Long was interested in power to the Longs, not in power to the people. Partly as a result, Louisiana is still a desperately poor place, with deep and abiding racial divides.