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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, his merits escaped the very liberal opinion that would celebrate him today. Because its position was for its time truly unconventional, Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana has a bite that Blaze, produced in a very different cultural and political climate, only seems to have. How could “we”—meaning, specifically, liberals, especially in the South—have failed to appreciate this hero, this civil rights visionary, this fresh and courageous voice, while we loudly complained about the bigotry and cowardice of other Southern politicians?

It must be remembered that Huey Long was himself thoroughly unrespectable during his life, which ended with his assassination in 1935, and for at least a quarter century thereafter. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (as well as the fine 1949 movie version) show Huey as the embodiment of the abuse of power. In Warren’s book, he is. In the 1930s and 1940s, the populist demagogue who promises everything to the poor and has extraordinary popular appeal while becoming increasingly totalitarian was a figure American intellectuals of good conscience found particularly menacing. Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., in The Politics of Upheaval, published just a year before The Earl of Louisiana, wrote that Huey Long “transformed the state government into a virtual dictatorship,” where corruption was rampant and political opponents were physically intimidated; in 1934, Schlesinger reminds us, Huey attempted to take from the city government control of the New Orleans police force and tax assessors’ offices, and when the city resisted, he had the Louisiana National Guard capture City Hall and put machine-gun emplacements in the windows to keep the mayor out.

Louisiana journalists who commanded national attention, such as Hodding Carter1 and Harnett T. Kane, whose Louisiana Hayride chronicled the corruption of the post-Huey years, were rabidly anti-Long. Carter even suggested that an armed revolution should be mounted against Huey. None of these critics, needless to say, fits Huey’s characterization of his opposition as being made up only of Bourbon planters and pawns of Standard Oil.

Huey Long was fully rehabilitated in 1969 by T. Harry Williams’s authoritative and admiring biography, which put relatively more weight on Huey’s success in addressing Louisiana’s severe economic and social problems, and less on his methods. As Willams describes the excellent prospect for Huey’s reelection to the Senate,

Above all he relied on the desire of the people to retain the Long program. They would not turn out of office the faction that was responsible for the great road and bridge program, the improved free hospital services, the free textbooks and increased appropriations to schools, the free night school for adults…and the abolition of the poll tax. Huey could well take pride in his program. It was a rare achievement in a Southern state of that time.

Williams’s rehabilitation was not universally accepted, though: it was often pointed out to me when I was growing up in uptown New Orleans, in the heartland of anti-Longism, that Williams had received considerable encouragement and aid, including financial aid, from Huey’s devoted son Russell, so what else could you expect him to write?

Earl himself was thought of as the last of a long line of buffoons, cronies, and crooks (such as Governors O. K. Allen and Richard Leche, Huey’s immediate successors) who, by claiming a connection to Huey, were able to occupy the grandiose Louisiana governor’s mansion for much of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Williams portrays Earl as a sort of successful Billy Carter. While Huey Long was governor, his opponents formed a Progressive-style coalition of the more straight-laced business interests, journalists, lawyers, professors, and clergymen, and worried that he would become a dictator, whereas the anti-Long forces’ view of Earl can be suggested by the name of an organization of his enemies mentioned by Kurtz and Peoples: The Committee to Save Louisiana from National Embarrassment.

Anyone living in a rapidly growing provincial American city, as New Orleans was in the 1950s, fears being thought of as a rube by New York (which is why Dallas has a brand-new art museum and symphony hall today). It was hard to keep up a front in New Orleans in 1959 while the governor of Louisiana was being committed to a mental institution by his family, then escaping and taking a heavily publicized tour of various western racetracks and nightclubs to recuperate.

If Williams was a revisionist of the liberal position represented by Schlesinger, Kurtz and Peoples are re-revisionists: they dismiss Huey Long as “a sinister, paranoic individual” who has been mistakenly lionized by “certain historians,” but they call Earl “the best governor in the state’s history”. Their treatment of Huey is too hostile to be altogether convincing; they make a point of telling us over and over that his inner circle included “men of wealth and prominence,” which is intended to give the lie to his populist oratory.

It’s true that Earl was less comfortable than Huey with the likes of Seymour Weiss, the owner of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and Louis Roussel, a rich, tough, independent oilman. It’s also true that Earl was much more loyal than Huey to the Long family; Huey hated the central Louisiana town they grew up in, Winnfield, and cut off relations with his parents and other siblings, whereas Earl spent many a happy weekend slopping hogs and visiting with his relatives at his ramshackle farm back home. Kurtz and Peoples probably picked up from the surviving Longs some of the family prejudice for Earl and against Huey. Huey was a truly important American figure during the Depression, though; it won’t do to dismiss him because of shortcomings that were essentially flaws of character, not failures as a public man.

Still, on the subject of Earl himself, Kurtz and Peoples are so thorough that their biases aren’t an issue. Their book is a monument to one of the Longs’ greatest legacies, the high quality of the state universities. Kurtz and Peoples, professors at Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana Tech respectively, have produced a work that is almost obsessively well researched (the bibliography lists interviews conducted as early as 1965 and as late as 1989) and it is written cleanly and well. It is a rare pleasure to find that there is support in the university for a full and readable biography of a minor but interesting political figure.

Kurtz and Peoples make the case that many of the accomplishments that Louisianans casually attribute to Huey are actually Earl’s. After Huey’s death, Earl, as lieutenant governor, talked the federal government into providing most of the funds for the enormous Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and got the legislature to institute the state old-age pension. Later, when he was governor, Earl built more miles of roads than Huey had. Even when Huey was alive, his successes owed substantially to Earl’s having been at his side, working the floor of the legislature with the consummate shrewdness expressed in his famous advice on conducting political business: “Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can wink.”

The superiority-of-Earl theory is appealingly fresh, but it must be said that it holds up only if the focus is kept tightly within the borders of Louisiana. Huey Long posed a threat to the most powerful president of this century. His “Share Our Wealth” clubs had a nationwide membership of more than four million. In his speeches and books, he outlined a sweeping new agenda for the federal government, whose chief feature was a heavy tax on wealth that would be redistributed to ordinary people in the form of a stipend. Earl may have been a master operator in state government, but he had no wider vision or ambitions, and his ideology, to the extent that he had one, was appropriated from Huey. Kurtz and Peoples are able to build up Earl because they are oblivious to life on the other side of the Pearl River, as Earl was too.

  1. 1

    During the Thirties Carter ran an anti-Long paper in Hammond, Louisiana.

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