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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, January 03, 2004
 

Earl Long of Louisiana: politics with interest!


I promised (threatened?) to get out my bio of Kingfish Huey Long's brother - and here we are!

The tome (bought years ago, well before I had much idea who Huey was, let alone Earl) is The Earl of Louisiana by AJ Liebling (1961), made up from stuff that Liebling wrote for the New Yorker, it seems. To judge from an initial squint, it's anecdotal, rather than analytical, and none the worse for it.

Politically speaking, Earl Long is both completely out there and a useful divining-rod for Southern politics. Elected [1] as Governor of Louisiana first in 1948 for a four year term [2], he was stymied from running in 1952 by the eunuch rule in the Louisiana Constitution. He came back to win in 1956, and tried (and failed) to beat the eunuch rule in 1960.

With matters Strom in mind, Earl Long is interesting for his attitudes and actions on racial matters. Race lay behind the most striking incident of his career: when, in 1959, one performance in the Louisiana legislature [3] was just a little too eccentric for his family, who thereafter attempted to lock him away in a lunatic asylum out of state (in the Liebling book, p28ff).

And the topic for the day was: a move by segregation hard-liners for the full enforcement (against Negroes, natch!) of the voter registration law, that allowed registrars to refuse registration on educational grounds:
"Now this registration you're talking about. That was put through in carpetbag days, then colored people and scalawags were running rampant in our country. You got to interpret the Constitution. There ain't ten people looking at me, including myself, who, if properly approached or attacked, could properly qualify to vote. They say this a nigger bill- ain't no such!..."

At this point, the camera focused on a young man with slick black hair and a long upper lip who was wearing a broad necktie emblazoned with a Confederate flag and who addressed a microphone with gestures appropriate to mass meetings. " It's Willie Rainach, the Citizens' Council boy," one of my mentors told me. Rainach, who is a state senator from Summerfield, in Claiborne Parish, pleaded with his colleagues not to let Long "sell Louisiana down the river." ...

Long, grabbing for a microphone - probably he had no legal right to be in the argument at all - remonstrated, " I think there's such a thing as being overeducated. Scientists tell me there's enough wrinkles up there - "tapping his head - "to take care of all kinds of stuff. Maybe I'm getting old - I'm losing some of mine. I hope that don't happen to Rainach. After all this over, he'll probably go up there to Summerfield, get up on his front porch, take off his shoes, wash his feet, look at the moon and get close to God." This was gross comedy, a piece of miming that recalled Jimmy Savo impersonating the Mississippi River. Then the old man, changing pace, shouted in Rainach's direction, "And when you do, you got to recognise that niggers is human beings."

Apparently, in 1959, the Citizens' Councils moved to expunge the names of 1,377 out of 1.510 Negro voters in Washington Parish; the Federal courts ordered the names restored. Liebling says that
...no dispatch clapped old Earl on the back for having championed them.

Long went on, as Liebling describes (p31):
"There's no longer slavery!" Long shouted at Rainach. "There wasn't but two people in Winn Parish that was able to own slaves - one was my grandpa, the other was my uncle - and when they were freed, they stayed on" (here his voice went tenor and sentimental, then dropped again) "and two of those fine old colored women more or less died in my Christian mother's arms - Black Alice and Aunt Rose." He sounded like a blend of David Warfield and Morton Downey.

"To keep fine, honorable grayheaded men and women off the registration rolls, some of whom have been voting as much as sixty or sixty-five years - I plead with you in all candor. I'm a candidate for Governor. If it hurts me, it will just have to hurt."

And, he says,
The theme of one long passage was that many legislators had Negro or at least part-Negro relatives in the bar sinister category, to whom they now wanted to deny the vote. He told a story about his own uncle who, climbing into bed with a Negro woman, had given umbrage to her husband, then present.

Here the Governor's voice was sad, like the voice of a man recounting the death of Agamemnon. "He shot my poor uncle" a one-beat pause "and he died. If white men had let Negro women alone, there wouldn't be any trouble."

Now, clearly, any account of the last days of segregation that gives full value to the career of Earl Long isn't going to suit the book of the speech-chilling grievance-meisters and shakedown artists who are allowed to edit the text of the received version of the period's history. Which, needless to say, is why I warm to the guy, whether he were nutcase or not.

More amusement to come from Ol' Earl, I suspect.

  1. He was elected as Lieutenant-Governor in 1936 and served out the remainder of the term of Governor Richard Leche who resigned in 1939 for health reasons after corruption allegations.

  2. Running in those days from the May of each presidential election year.

  3. Not a terribly lucky place for the Long brothers!

MORE

Some Louisiana political stories - including the Long brothers, natch!

Snippets on Earl Long here, here; on the Louisiana Scandals (that did for Richard Leche) here [1]; on a later colourful Louisiana Governor, Edwin Edwards (also here, with Richard Leche comparison).

  1. From the T Harry Williams Center for Oral History - which seems parsimonious with its online material! Williams, from memory, is author of Lincoln and the Radicals, one of the few books to deal with the politics of the Civil War period (compared with the zillions dealing with military matters!).


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