The legacy of Huey Long is a controversial one. In the eighty years since his death, the legend of the Kingfish has only grown. To some he was a tyrant who ran Louisiana with an iron first. To others Huey Long was a defender of the poor and downtrodden. What is undeniable to both sides however is that Huey Long left a lasting legacy not only to his State, but to all of American politics.
Few politicians were as divisive as Governor Huey Long of Louisiana was in the early 20th Century. In the age of political turmoil and radicalization across the globe, Huey Long came perhaps the closest to being a true populist and hero of the people of the United States of America. Before his assassination in 1935 the Kingfish of Louisiana gave hope to those in the middle of the Great Depression, roads and school houses to the underprivileged, food for the hungry, and gave the corporations who had been looting Louisiana an ultimatum to either serve the people of the State or get out of town. With fiery passion and the incorruptible drive to get things done, Huey Long became the hero of Louisiana.
The State of Louisiana and the South as a whole were under the boot heel of massive corporations. Louisiana in particular was dominated by the bosses of Standard Oil. The riches above and below God’s green earth had been stolen for generations from the rightful owners and sent off to make profits and dividends for the stockholders back in Washington and New York City. The resources of a State that were to be used for the betterment of the people of the State, and thereby the people of that State, were being stolen by outsiders who had no concern about the people of the State. While the military occupation known as Reconstruction had ended, the corporations continued to occupy and pillage the people of the South.
The marriage between democratically elected politicians and large corporations is not new, it’s merely grown more elaborate over time. Back then, the American nation and her people were not fully turned into the banana republic that we are living in today. Imperialism by capitalism was at the heart of exploitation not only of those in the Third World, but also the poor of America.
The birthright of many millions of White Americans was up for sale at the hands of traitors and sell out politicians who were willing to give up their own community to corporations like Standard Oil for a measly thirty pieces of silver and a pat on the head. From the coal fields of West Virginia to the oil fields of Louisiana, companies used and abused the people of the land before shipping profit away to capitalist centers, leaving only poor, maimed, poisoned land, and lame in their wake.
The world of capitalist exploitation and crony politicians is the one that Huey Long grew up in. To fully understand Huey Long’s large base of support, one must understand the crushing poverty faced by the vast majority of Louisianans, White and Black alike. At the time of Huey’s birth, parts of Louisiana were nearly a failed state due to the horrendous level of corruption.
Corruption among the political bosses and corporations was so bad that Tammany Hall would have blushed to be caught in so many backroom deals. While over 3/4th’s of the population of Louisiana was illiterate and public services were near non-existent, that mattered little to the political and social elites of Louisiana.The infrastructure of the State of Louisiana was falling apart, the poor were suffering in many cases from near starvation and a derelict educational system, and the future looked increasingly grim for those outside of the moneyed oligarchs who ran the state.
The story of Governor Long is one that began in Winn Parish Louisiana as one of nine children. Early on in life Huey was known for his skills in debate and speech, working as a salesman and auctioneer to pay the bills as a young man. Huey was known for his quick wit, impeccable memory, and ability to communicate with people of all groups and classes. In a simple country style that would serve him well for the rest of his political career, Huey’s speeches commanded the attention of the room as soon as he started talking. Without passing law school, Huey passed the Louisiana Bar Exam and worked in a variety of cases, mostly in support of poor and underprivileged clients.
After working in private practice for several years, Huey Long decided to take a stab at running for political office. With his usual internal fire and natural charisma, he was elected to the State Railroad Commission on a populist platform. In a strategy that would work for him until his death, Huey engaged the “cracker vote” for support. In Louisiana politics the poor White working class was often ignored by the elites who were battling for support of big business like Standard Oil. Instead of seeking to suck off the tit of Standard Oil and big business, Huey went down every unpaved road in Louisiana he could find to talk with normal people about their concerns, dreams, and desires. Promising to speak for them, the poor of Louisiana quickly fell in love with Huey Long. At the young age of only twenty five he was elected to his first public office, and from that moment on he was a fighter for the working class who stood as a true steward of those who were being victimized.
One of the first acts that Huey undertook was to fight against corporate monopolies in the State. Winning reform and judgments against companies who had stolen from the people of Louisiana quickly made the young man a hero to the masses, and a danger to the established order. The two camps on Huey Long were established early and became only more entrenched as Huey ran for Governor, eventually getting elected to the Governor’s mansion in 1928.
The masses of the population loved Huey for standing up for them against corporate interests and the old guard that had purposefully disenfranchised the masses for selfish gain. On the other side of the aisle were the rich and powerful who say Huey Long as a threat to their monopoly of power. If the masses could be awoken as an organized political force, the people could overthrow the capitalist regime and through consent of the governed give men like Huey Long the position of stewardship to rule and lead them. Huey Long once remarked that “A perfect democracy can come close to looking like a dictatorship, a democracy in which the people are so satisfied they have no complaint.”
Huey Long struck a strong Traditionalist theme of the unity between leadership and the people as an organic community working together in many parts for the same goal, the preservation and advancement of that community. If the leaders of a community are doing their jobs properly of looking after their people, the people can safely put their trust and support in their leaders. Whether a monarch, a Fuhrer, or the Governor of Louisiana, if the people are rallied behind the leader that truly cares for them and leads them in the path of Tradition and righteousness, the opposition of the moneyed elites and powers that be cannot hold back the flood of the folk that overwhelm their incomplete and hollow society to replace it with one based upon Faith, family, folk, and true justice.
One of the cornerstones of Huey Long’s political career beyond opposing the corporations and elites was pushing education reform for the people of Louisiana. At the time that Huey Long took office, the education system of Louisiana was nearly non-existent. The State government had built only a fraction of the number of schools needed to educate the children of the state and provided even less funding. Huey Long placed taxes on the large companies that had grown fat and profitable by the sweat of the people and used this money to build schools throughout the rural areas of the State.
Free textbooks to White and Black children, free tablets (ahead of his time!), and other school supplies were given to the needy children by the tens of thousands every single year. While some political forces actually attempted to stop the aid from reaching needy children (sounds oddly familiar to the current Republican opposition to Federally subsidized Medicaid expansion of the past few years), Huey was not deterred. While the Old Regulars could whine and moan, the media could attack him, and business interests could try to stop him, Huey knew that his loyalty to his people led to loyalty from his people. A synergy between ruler and the ruled with the understanding of “with great power comes great responsibility” built a legion of supporters for Huey and his political dynasty.
Governor Long’s views on race were controversial in the day but were far from radical progressive ideals that would bear their fruit in the next several decades. Governor Long made an effort to educate Black children and provide them with resources to be on par with White children in regards to resources. Governor Long seemed to take a very paternalistic view on the Black population as shown by his comments during a speech about his education programs “Now, just a word about the poor Negroes … They’re here. They’ve got to be cared for … The poor Negroes have got to live, too.”
Huey Long did nothing to dismantle racial separation or change the culture of Louisiana, he simply understood that a Black population that is educated and given some basic tools could be far more productive for the state and for themselves than a totally ignorant one. An educated workforce had the ability to boost individual families, communities, and the state at large. Generational ignorance allowed the people of Louisiana to be enslaved by the corporations but Governor Long stood to help all of his citizens, Huey told reporters ‘I’m the governor and I say the ignorant in this state have to learn, Blacks as well as Whites.” State programs helped lift tens of thousands of Whites and Blacks out of poverty while maintaining important racial and social separations, a platform that rightly got him support from both sides of the color line.
Using his own political pressure and efforts, Huey made sure that the children of Louisiana got the resources they needed to succeed no matter what it took. Alongside aid for children, a major program of Governor Long was to establish training courses for adults to teach them to read. This State sponsored literacy program was a smashing success and helped educate a large percentage of the population, helping the state and local communities grow and thrive. While generations of politicians had promised reform and continued the status quo, Huey broke from the mold and made a true difference in the lives of the people of Louisiana.