That’s Earl, Folks!

The history of the South is full of stories of fiery young economic populists who turned to racism, like George Wallace and Pitchfork Ben Tillman, as well as the man C. Vann Woodward made into an emblem of that political progression, Tom Watson. But one prominent Southern politician during the very peak of Massive Resistance openly embraced the causes of black suffrage and the education of blacks, and at the same time was able to retain his appeal to the resentment that the white small farmer and blue-collar worker felt toward the rich and powerful. This was Earl Kemp Long—the younger brother of Huey Long—who was governor of Louisiana three times in twenty years, in mid-1939 and early 1940, from 1948 to 1952, and then again from 1956 to 1960.

When Earl Long began his first full term as governor there were 22,572 registered black voters in Louisiana, 2.4 percent of the total electorate. By the time he left office for the last time, the electorate was 15.6 percent black: more than 100,000 blacks had been added to the rolls. Only after the Voting Rights Act took effect in 1965 did any other Southern governor allow substantial black voter registration. In the late 1950s Earl built the New Orleans branch of Louisiana State University, which was integrated—making it, in the words of Michael Kurtz and Morgan Peoples, “the first public, state-supported university in the Deep South that admitted all students without regard to race.” Moreover, to quote Kurtz and Peoples again:

During his eight years as governor, Louisiana witnessed the construction of fourteen new trade schools for blacks and over a hundred new public schools, the hiring of over two thousand new black schoolteachers, paid on an equal salary scale with white teachers, a 50 percent reduction in black illiteracy, and a tenfold increase in spending for black colleges.

Today we are told we are supposed to love Earl Long, not just for his enlightened racial views but also for his raffishness. His opponents inspired him to insults of the highest eloquence. His behavior seemed outrageous. Often he doused himself with Coca-Cola in the middle of a speech, he went on wild shopping sprees at country stores, he had affairs with strippers. His eccentricities strike a chord of collective yearning in us for the earthy, colorful, pretelevision days in American politics.

The inventor of the Earl cult was A. J. Liebling, who found in the governor the rare politician whose taste in both ideology and recreation he could admire. His book, The Earl of Louisiana, came out shortly after Earl’s death in 1960, and since then the accepted picture of Earl has remained essentially the same; last year’s movie Blaze, which depicted the affair between Earl (played by Paul Newman) and Blaze Starr as a touching story of two Southern eccentrics in love, adopted Liebling’s view of Earl as a good-hearted, fighting populist.

When Earl was actually among us, though …

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