A child was born on this day in 1893 in Winn Parish, north central Louisiana. The seventh of nine surviving children born to Caledonia Palestine Tison and Huey Long.
Largely home schooled and gifted with a photographic memory, Huey Pierce Long, Jr. won a debating scholarship to LSU, but couldn’t afford the textbooks. He worked as a traveling salesman until briefly attending University of Oklahoma College of Law, and later Tulane Law School. He passed the bar exam after only a year in law school. Long spent ten years in private practice, representing a series of small plaintiffs against large businesses. He would often say that he never took a case against a poor man.
As chairman of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, Long won a lawsuit against Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph. Huey successfully argued the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, where former President and later Chief Justice William Howard Taft described him as one of the best legal minds he had ever encountered.
60% of Louisiana’s population was rural and poor in 1928. One in four was illiterate.
There were only 300 miles of paved roads and just three major bridges in the whole state, but Huey was everywhere in his run for governor. He campaigned against the New Orleans political machine, the “Old Regulars”. His left-wing, populist attacks were vehement, relentless and personal.
George “Kingfish” Stevens was the smooth talking trouble maker from the Amos & Andy radio program, the stereotypical African-American character whose catchphrase “Holy mackerel!”, was soon to enter the American lexicon.
A follower called Huey the “Kingfish” and Long must’ve liked it. The name stuck, with Huey’s encouragement.
Poll taxes had long disenfranchised poor whites in Louisiana, and selective application of literacy standards had all but shut blacks out of the voting process. “I’m for the poor man”, he said, “all poor men, black and white, they all gotta have a chance…’Every man a king’ — that’s my slogan.”
Huey had tapped into deep class resentments. He won his election overwhelmingly, with 96.1% of the vote.
The populist soon showed an authoritarian side, as Long fired hundreds of opponents from the state bureaucracy, replacing them with patronage appointments.
Huey kept a “Deduct Box”, and every state employee was expected to hand over a portion of his salary. $50,000 to $75,000 was raised in this manner, equivalent to $705,000 to $1,000,000 in today’s dollars. It was Huey’s alone to spend on any political purpose he liked.
Long would bully opponents of his legislative agenda, as opponents attempted to impeach him in his first year. He tried to cut the session short as the state legislature dissolved into “Bloody Monday”, a massive fist fight, brass knuckles and all. The legislature voted to proceed with impeachment, but suspended when Huey got a third of state senators to sign a “Round Robin” statement promising not to convict, no matter what the evidence.
Long became ruthless after the impeachment attempt, firing relatives of opponents where he could, and supporting their adversaries in local elections. “I used to try to get things done by saying ‘please’,” he said. “Now…I dynamite ’em out of my path.”
Long ran for US Senate and won in 1930. For 9 months he was both Governor and Senator. Lieutenant Governor Paul Cyr argued that Long couldn’t be both, taking the oath of office in October 1931 and declaring himself Governor.
Long responded by ordering National Guard troops to surround the Capitol, ending Cyr’s “coup d’état”. He won the showdown in state Supreme Court, making Senate President and Long ally Alvin Olin King the new Lieutenant Governor. Huey then handpicked his successor, and the Senator from Louisiana effectively became Louisiana’s Dictator.
Huey was an early redistributionist. His “Share our Wealth” policies alienated conservative Democrats and Republicans alike. In his ‘High Popalorum, Low Popahirum’ speech of 1935, Long said “The only difference I ever found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership is that one of them is skinning you from the ankle up, and the other, from the neck down.”
Long continued to run the state from his Senate seat, as his enemies formed a paramilitary organization, the “Square Deal Association”, and plotted armed insurrection. 200 of them stormed the East Baton Rouge Parish courthouse that January, prompting the Governor to call out the National Guard and declare martial law.
Death threats followed, as did arson attempts, and at least one drive-by shooting at Huey’s home in New Orleans. He was never without a personal bodyguard of armed State Police.
Long was a contender for the upcoming 1936 Democrat presidential primary, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The Senator was in the State Capitol for a special session of the legislature with a number of bills to push through, including a measure to gerrymander Judge Benjamin Pavy out of his job. It was September 8, 1935.
Pavy’s son-in-law Dr. Carl Austin Weiss approached the Kingfish in a narrow hallway, brandishing a .32 revolver.
Weiss shot Huey once in the abdomen before his bodyguards opened up, firing wildly as the Senator ran to safety. A later autopsy revealed that Dr. Weiss had been shot 57 times.
Huey Long died two days later, 11 days after his 42nd birthday. Some think that a bodyguard’s bullet was the one that killed him, but the truth may never be known. His last words were, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do”.
There is an obvious question to be asked, based on the surname borne by this scrivener, in common with the subject of this story. The answer, I’m sorry to report, is yes. Remotely.