The Kingfish

Falling through the universe at the speed of life
circa 1930: Huey Pierce Long (1893 – 1935), the American Politician and Governor of Louisiana as well as Senator. He was known as ‘The Kingfish’ and was assassinated in 1935. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By David Glenn Cox

How often the name of Jesus Christ is commonly bandied about, and for a fictional or faith-based character, I suppose that’s all right. I mean, well, Jesus allegedly cast the money changers out of the temple, and he healed a few lepers and cured a couple of cases of blindness. He was, after all, a carpenter by trade and a messiah only by a calling later in life. Jesus received much well-deserved praise for siding with the poor, the uneducated and the troubled, the common folk they loved him for it. But the rich folk, as rich folk often do, perceive any such individual who avows a mission to assist the poor as a threat, and so, as the story goes they nailed him into the sky.

Funny thing about these religious messiah’s, they always want to help the poor but they always tell em there’s a better world a waiting for them somewhere else, tomorrow, if you’ll only believe today. The Buda traveled through the land and met with kings and potentates and told the poor people it was their desire which was the cause of their suffering. Politics has long been called the art of compromise, give and take or what’s commonly referred to as log rolling.

What if there was a politician who wouldn’t compromise on his principles? What if there was a politician who dedicated his life to aiding the poor and unfortunate. A politician who didn’t just rub spit and mud into the eyes of the blind, but instead built hospitals for the blind and trained doctors for sick, schools for the children, night schools for the illiterate. What if there was a politician who cut taxes for the poor, abolished the poll tax and instituted a foreclosure moratorium? Built a medical school, doubled the size of the state university and built a public hospital for the mentally ill. Not to mention, over nine thousand miles of paved roads, 111 bridges including three major bridges.

What would you call such a politician in America? He was called a scoundrel and a crook, a demagogue and a dictator.

“A man is not a dictator when he is given a commission from the people and carries it out.” – Huey Long

Everybody gather ’round

Loosen up your suspenders, hunker down on the ground

I’m a cracker, you are too gonna take good care of you
Who built the highway to Baton Rouge?

Who put up the hospital, built you schools?

Who looked after shit-kickers like you?

 The Kingfish do

Who gave a party at the Roosevelt Hotel?

Invited whole north half of the state down there for free

People in the city had their eyes bugging out

‘Cause everyone looked just like me

Who took on the Standard Oil men and whipped their ass

 Just like he promised he’d do?

Ain’t no Standard Oil men gonna run this state

Gonna be run by little folks like me and you

Here’s the Kingfish, the Kingfish

Friend of the working man

The Kingfish, the Kingfish

The Kingfish gonna save this land

 – Randy Newman

He was born Huey Pierce Long, Jr. on August 30th 1893 in Winnfield Louisiana. He was the seventh of nine children; his parents were moderately successful as livestock farmers in the poorest Parish in all of Louisiana. Long was destined to become the god damnedest politician ever to live in these United States.

“My voice will be the same as it has been. Patronage will not change it.
Fear will not change it. Persecution will not change it.
It cannot be changed while people suffer. The only way it can be changed is to make the lives of these people decent and respectable. No one will ever hear political opposition out of me when that is done.” – Huey P. Long

As a child of eight, Huey Long had witnessed a sheriff’s sale of a neighbor’s farm after the owner was unable to repay a debt owed to a store owner. The farmer begged the crowd not to bid on his farm, pleading tearfully to repay his debt if given enough time to harvest another crop. No one in the crowd offered a bid. Just as the sheriff was about to announce “no sale” the store owner placed a bid, winning the farm and making the farmer and his family homeless. Long remembered it years later, “The poor farmer was out, I was horrified. I could not understand. It seemed criminal.”

Long began walking at eight months of age and drove his parents and siblings to distraction. As a child he had no use for farm work and devoured books which were hard to come by in Winn Parish. Young Huey once climbed underneath a fired locomotive to get a better look, wanting to discover how it worked, delaying the train’s departure until someone finally pulled him out. His father built a cover over the families well because he feared; Huey would jump in, “just to see what it was like.”

As a child, Huey was remembered as the kid telling the old men playing checkers in town, what their next move should be. He was said to have had a photographic memory and was raised in a deeply religious family where he developed a strong sense of moral righteousness attending church twice a week, and never missing a revival. As an adult, Huey’s speeches carried the fire of an evangelist pounding his fist into his hand. Huey wasn’t just making a speech, he was sermonizing. His mother had made her children read a page from the Bible each night and then try to recite it from memory.

In school, despite Huey’s irascibility he was repeatedly skipped ahead, eventually passing the state bar exam at age 21, without ever having graduating from college or even from High School. Huey had been expelled from high school when he began a petition drive after the school added a twelfth-grade graduation requirement. He then placed third in a state-wide debate competition winning a scholarship to Louisiana State University. A scholarship he couldn’t use, because he lacked the money for textbooks and for room and board. 

He became a traveling salesman, selling canned goods and patent medicines. Huey Long said he loved that job, he was learning to talk to people. Rather than just sermonizing like a preacher, he was learning to work the crowd with his sharp and biting wit. An opponent in an early campaign told the crowd that he had been so poor as a child, his family couldn’t afford to buy him shoes. Huey answered that charge saying, that he was so poor as a child, that he had been born without shoes!

At his mother’s urging, Huey briefly attended seminary classes at Oklahoma Baptist University and just as briefly, University of Oklahoma School of law and then Tulane University. After passing the bar, he set up his practice in Winnfield and later in Shreveport. Long later boasted, he never took a case against a poor man. He married his wife Rose in 1913 and began a family. In 1918, at the age of 25, he was elected to the office of Louisiana Railroad commissioner on an anti- Standard Oil platform.

In 1921, Long successfully sued the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company for unfair rate increases winning 80,000 customers $440,000 in refunds. He argued the case on appeal before the Supreme Court of the United States prompting Chief Justice, William Howard Taft to describe Huey Long, as one of the best legal minds he had ever encountered.

In 1924, Huey Long had run for Governor and had finished third; claiming rain on Election Day had made the roads too muddy for his base in Northern Louisiana, to reach the polls. He was re-elected Railroad Commissioner now renamed the Public Service Commission.

It was during the 1928 campaign for Governor Long began using his famous “Every Man a King” slogan borrowed from William Jennings Bryan. Louisiana had a long entrenched political machine extending back to colonial times known as “The Old Regulars.” Operating out of New Orleans, the machine held almost complete power in the state through local sheriffs and courthouse rings. The wealthy planters and big business and utilities had almost a free reign to do what ever they wished in the state.

Louisiana had less than 300 miles of paved highways and most bridges were private toll bridges. The state had a poll tax which had to be paid in cash, one year before the date of the election. Public education was almost nonexistent, and parents had to purchase the text books for their children to attend school. Property taxes were disproportionately high for small farmers, who generally received little for their money in the way of state services. Huey Long made his defining speech of the 1928 campaign in St. Martinville Louisiana, drawing on Longfellow’s poem, “Evangeline”.

“…It is here under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover, Gabriel, who never came. This oak is an immortal spot, made so by Longfellow’s poem, but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment.

Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come?

Where are the roads and the highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before?

Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled?

Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.”

Huey Long was elected Governor by the largest majority in the state’s history and 15,000 flocked to the capital to see him take the oath of office. No sooner had he been sworn into office, than he began to fire hundreds of workers with patronage jobs and to replace them with his own supporters. To the ensconced aristocracy Huey Long was their worst nightmare come to flesh. He was ruthless politician, when the utilities commissioner refused to support Long’s tax on Standard Oil’s pipeline, Long had his salary zeroed out of the state budget. If you worked in the Long administration, you gave part of your salary to the deduct box. Long had no support from the wealthy or from corporations in the state and had to depend upon his own.

“They say they don’t like my methods. Well, I don’t like them either. I really don’t like to have to do things the way I do. I’d much rather get up before the legislature and say, ‘Now this is a good law and it’s for the benefit of the people, and I’d like you to vote for it in the interest of the public welfare.’ Only I know that laws ain’t made that way. You’ve got to fight fire with fire.” – Huey Long

“I’d rather violate every one of the damn conventions and see my bills passed, than sit back in my office, all nice and proper, and watch ’em die.” – Huey Long

“You will find that you cannot do without politicians. They are a necessary evil in this day and time. You may not like getting money from one source and spending it for another. But the thing for the school people to do is that if the politicians are going to steal, make them steal for the schools.” – Huey Long

“Raise all the hell you want to, print what you want to. But we’re going to have that medical school and every qualified poor boy can go.” – Huey Long

Because the states newspapers where in league with his opponents Huey Long started his own newspaper the Louisiana Progress. Long proposed a tax on newspapers, which he dubbed his, “liar’s tax.”

Huey Long would use bribery, intimidation, blackmail and threats, to get his programs passed not because he was a barbarian but because he was fighting fire with fire, and he was doing things the way it had always been done in the past. So, when Long moved into the governor’s mansion, he discovered it was termite infested and falling down. He asked the legislature for funds to build a new governor’s mansion and when they refused, Long used state prisoners to demolish the old governor’s mansion, razing it to the ground.

Though Long had originally supported Franklin Roosevelt, he soon broke with the President because he felt FDR’s programs were too corporate leaning.

“The trouble is, Roosevelt hasn’t taken all of my ideas; just part of them. I’m about one hundred yards ahead of him. We’re on the same road, but I’m here and he’s there.” – Huey Long

“We shall have to say right here and now that the hand of imperial finance shall not go farther into its strangulation of the American people and that the hand of imperialistic banking control shall be decentralized instead of centralized in America.” – Huey Long

Huey Long pushed through an impressive list of programs keeping his campaign promises, not just forcing his opponents not to just eat humble pie, but to eat it publicly as Long ridiculed the old guard,

“I have never held a public office in my life during which I was not under some kind of threat of removal or impeachment from the day I went into politics until the present day. . . I have tried for about sixteen years to have it some other way, and it has never been any other way, so now I have stopped trying to have it any other way.” – Huey Long

“God told you what the trouble was. The philosophers told you what the trouble was; and when you have a country where one man owns more than 100,000 people, or a million people, and when you have a country where there are four men, as in America that have got more control over things than all the 120 million people together, you know what the trouble is.” – Huey Long

Huey Long was bombastic and over the top with his characteristic white linen suits and his thick accent and even thicker metaphors. In Louisiana, a Noam Chomsky or Adlai Stevenson wouldn’t never get elected, Huey Long knew his audience and he knew how to talk to them, he was a cracker and they were crackers too.

“How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what’s intended for nine-tenths of the people to eat? The only way you will be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub he ain’t got no business with.” – Huey Long

Huey Long’s signature program was his “Share our Wealth” program which would cap wealth on personal fortunes at $50 million, $600 million in today’s dollars. Limiting annual personal incomes annually to $1 million, or $12 million in today’s dollars. Inheritances would be limited to $5 million dollars or $60 million today.

In return, the poor would be guaranteed one third of the average national wage. Old age pensions for all people over 60, a free college education and vocational training. All workers were guaranteed a four-week vacation, a 30-hour week, plus veteran’s benefits and free health care.

Huey Long cut licensing fees eliminated property taxes on the poor, and while taxes rose in Louisiana, the tax burden for the average worker in the state fell. Huey Long paid for his programs by raising taxes on oil refineries, fuel and oil pipelines. When Standard Oil threatened to pull out of Louisiana, Huey Long answered, “If they got to leave, they can go to Hell and stay there.”

“If we could only succeed in having the government hold fortunes down to a few million dollars to any one man, then there would be something on which to run the country and for the people. When I proposed such a thing here, it looked like it would set the woods on fire against me.” – Huey Long

Despite being a candidate in a deep Southern state, in the Jim Crow South, in the 1930’s Huey Long openly opposed the Ku Klux Klan,

“Quote me as saying that that Imperial bastard will never set foot in Louisiana, and that when I call him a [SOB] I am not using profanity but am referring to the circumstances of his birth.” – Huey Long

On September 8, 1935, Huey Long was shot by a lone assailant inside the new State Capital building he had built, dying two days later in the hospital he had built. He was only 42 years of age.

“God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.”- Huey Long

9,700 miles of new roads, 111 Toll free bridges, Free textbooks, Free Schools, Statewide school bussing, Adult literacy programs, LSU expansion, LSU medical school, Expanded Charity Hospitals, Reformed mental institutions, Reformed the prison system, Abolished the poll tax, building a new State Capital and building a new Governor’s mansion. He built the sea wall in New Orleans and the airport too. He lowered utility rates, cut property taxes, imposed a debt moratorium and halted home foreclosures and regulated banks. “Who looked after shit-kickers like you?”

 The Kingfish do

He was a crook — but he had no money; a corrupt politician — but the cost of government is third-lowest in the country; a demagogue — but he kept his campaign promises; a hillbilly — but he had no racial prejudices; an ignoramus — but he ran a business administration; a dictator — but he broadened the suffrage; an opportunist — but he had ideals.” – Drew Pearson’s proposed obituary

“Others had power in their organization, but he had power in himself. And he brought them all to their knees.” – Herve Racevitch, Old Regular who had joined with Huey Long

“All I care is what the boys at the forks of the creek think of me.” – Huey Long

“He was fair to colored people, good to all people. He walked the land like Jesus Christ and left nothing undone.” – Rivers Livous, laborer

Huey Pierce Long only served one term as Governor of Louisiana and three years as a US Senator and so, as the story goes, they nailed him into the sky.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s