Huey P. Long Jr.
Huey Long rose to prominence during the Great Depression as governor of Louisiana.
Huey Long rose from ordinary beginnings in Winn Parish to become Louisiana’s most notable politician. Despite meager formal education, Long passed the state bar examination at age twenty-two and earned a laudable reputation with his legal defense of common folk. In 1918 he launched a political career that ultimately propelled him into the governorship. Long fashioned a powerful statewide political organization and embarked on a program laden with public works, popular reforms, and heavy elements of corruption. In 1932 Long became a US Senator and a major voice for the redistribution of wealth on the national scene. In 1935 he was shot and killed in the halls of the state capitol.
Long was born to Huey P. Long Sr. and his wife, Caledonia, in Winnfield on August 30, 1893. He attended public schools but never graduated. In 1910 he began a career as a traveling salesman in the Southwest, stopping briefly to attend the University of Oklahoma. In 1913 he married Rose McConnell. The couple had three children: Rose, Russell, and Palmer. In 1915 Long attended Tulane University School of Law as a special student, passed the bar exam, and became an attorney. He then earned a solid reputation for his work on workers’ compensation cases and land and timber rights.
In 1918 Long ran successfully for the Louisiana Railroad Commission (renamed the Public Service Commission in 1921); four years later he became the commission’s chairman. Continuing to champion the causes of the common folk, Long sought lower rates from the utility companies and challenged corporate monopolies. In 1924 he campaigned unsuccessfully for governor on a platform of opposition to the Standard Oil Company, Governor John M. Parker, and traditional state politics. Observers contended that, despite a vigorous campaign that featured the extensive use of radio and sound trucks, Long’s failure to take a clear position on the Ku Klux Klan and a heavy rainstorm that kept potential voters at home caused his defeat.
In 1928 Long used tremendous energy, a populist appeal, and denunciation of the federal government’s inaction during the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 to win election to the governorship over Congressman Riley Wilson and O. H. Simpson. Long’s campaign, unlike the efforts of other contemporary southern politicos, was remarkably free of race baiting. In the state capital, the Kingfish, a nickname that Long expropriated from the popular Amos ‘n’ Andy radio program, pursued a progressive program that featured improved education for all ages, inexpensive natural gas for New Orleans, and wide-ranging public construction projects. Long also systematically removed his political foes from power and installed a new political hierarchy with himself at its head. In 1929 he sought innovative new taxes on the products of monopolistic oil companies, notably Standard Oil Corporation, an action that contributed directly to Long’s impeachment on various accusations from corruption to public profanity. The Kingfish, however, used his popularity with voters, brashness, and cunning legal scheming to evade the charges. The following year, Long created Louisiana Progress (later American Progress) to sidestep the newspapers that generally favored his opponents and convey his ideas straight to the voters.
Not all of Long’s plans, however, were successful. In 1930 state lawmakers defeated an impressive series of construction projects that Long favored. The Kingfish’s response was to campaign successfully for the US Senate with the assurance that he would not leave the governorship until his term concluded. Long feared that his departure would allow the lieutenant governor, a fierce enemy, to gain political leverage in Louisiana. The Kingfish subsequently crafted a temporary partnership with his one-time rivals in the New Orleans Regular Democratic Organization (commonly referred to as “Old Regulars”), a powerful political group led by New Orleans Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley. This alliance made it possible for Long’s construction plans to move forward. Building plans for a new Louisiana State Capitol and a governor’s mansion, now known as the Old Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, were soon underway. Plans for road construction and increased spending on education, to be funded by a new gas tax, were not far behind. Special support went to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Long’s favorite institution. In late 1931, Long used his control over the state court system to remove the lieutenant governor and place Oscar K. Allen, his longtime friend and business partner, in the vacant office. With the state firmly under control, Long resigned the governorship and left for Washington in January 1932.
The US Senate
In the nation’s capital, Long declared himself a maverick. He resigned from all of his committee assignments and attacked both major political parties for their failure to redistribute wealth and resolve the problems of the Great Depression. In 1932 Long vigorously backed the presidential candidacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and campaigned for him in the north. The Kingfish also campaigned for Hattie Caraway in Arkansas, using his widespread popularity and powerful speaking voice in an energetic seven-day assault on Louisiana’s neighboring state. With his help, she became the first woman elected to the US Senate.
In 1933 the Kingfish broke with Roosevelt, contending that the president’s plans did not adequately help the nation’s poor or reallocate wealth. Long began to criticize various New Deal programs, including the Glass-Steagall Banking Act and the National Recovery Administration. He also aligned himself with the more isolationist, liberal wing of the Senate that included Gerald Nye, George Norris, and Burton K. Wheeler. Roosevelt, believing Long to be a dangerous demagogue, started to channel federal recovery revenues and political favors toward the Kingfish’s enemies. The president also challenged the honesty of electoral results in Louisiana and instructed agents of the Internal Revenue Service to look into the income sources of Long and his associates.
While Long continued his battle with the president, he frequently visited Louisiana and used loyal operatives to preserve his influence at home. Through his personal power and the employment of surrogates, he secured an end to the poll tax and created a homestead exemption. He also increased corporate levies and expanded the size and authority of state government. His foes in both Louisiana and Washington increasingly contended that Long was attaining the power and the demeanor of a dictator. Comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini abounded.
Share Our Wealth
In 1934 Long inaugurated the Share Our Wealth Society (SOWS), a national group that sought the legal confiscation of all annual incomes totaling more than $1 million and all personal fortunes topping $5 million. He intended to use the resultant revenue to provide all American citizens with free education, homes, radios, and automobiles. His plan also included a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens, including African Americans, and a pension for the elderly. Under the guidance of the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, a skilled organizer and captivating orator, SOWS branches spread across the country. In 1935 Smith and Long boasted that the organization had more than 7 million members and 27,000 chapters throughout the United States. Many observers contended that SOWS forced the president to move his administration toward the political left with the passage of the Social Security Act and the establishment of the Works Progress Administration.
Death and Legacy
While rumors persisted that Long would attempt to defeat Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election, the Kingfish continued to dominate politics in his home state. In September 1935, he went to Louisiana to supervise a special legislative session that would provide him with even greater political and governmental control. On the night of September 8, 1935, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss entered a rear corridor of the new state capitol with the intent to confront or possibly even kill Long. Weiss, whose father-in-law was being pushed out of a judgeship as punishment for opposing Long, fired shots, but it is unclear whether the bullets that struck Long came from Weiss’s gun or from Long’s own bodyguards returning fire. Weiss was killed at the scene. Long died from his wounds on September 10, 1935.
Huey Long altered Louisiana politics forever. For three decades after his death, Louisianans debated the value of his achievements and voted accordingly. Through the 1960s, state politics were split between Longism and Anti-Longism factions. His national impact was more mercurial. Although Long attracted many supporters throughout the country with his brash economic proposals and brazen behavior, his achievements were few. Many contended that Long deserved to become president, but his death pushed those prospects, and his lofty ambitions, into the fanciful domain of unrealized promise and endless conjecture.