After watching several of the recent swamp themed reality programs filmed in Louisiana which cover such topics as oil drilling, alligator catching and duck hunting, I couldn't help but feel that the Bayou State was being somewhat short-changed by the image being presented to a global audience. The ratings would indicate an interest in the region and if that is the case, I reckon it may interest some to learn of another story that happened there between the wars.
I remember being taken with my Fourth Grade class to the Capitol building in Baton Rouge to see the bullet-pocked marble walls where an important man had been gunned down a mere thirty-two years before. I was already familiar with the political tool of assassination from TV coverage of the murder of President Kennedy when I was in Grade One. Our class was also taught the significance of the Louisiana flag depicting a mother pelican wounding her breast to feed her three chicks with her own blood.
The quality and accessibility of my first six years of public schooling in Denham Springs and Baton Rouge, Louisiana were made available to me by the efforts of a Louisiana native son and by his mother who home-schooled her children in her farm kitchen in Winnfield, Louisiana. Education never ceases to be our own responsibility but I deem it only proper to say thanks and to acknowledge folks who cleared some of the paths I have been blessed to walk on in my own quest.
The man was Huey P. Long and the woman was his mother, Caledonia Long. She tutored her nine children until her husband and some other neighbors could raise enough money to hire a teacher for their community. Huey finished grade eleven and just as he did, it was made mandatory to complete twelve years in order to receive a diploma. Huey started a petition against this and was expelled without a diploma.
He did many different jobs and studied for awhile in Oklahoma to be a preacher. He found this not to be his calling very shortly and went to law school and completed three years in one. At this juncture, the young married man's money gave out and he approached the Supreme Court of Louisiana and asked to be examined forthwith. His challenge was accepted and he became a full fledged lawyer at the age of 21.
As chairman of the Public Service Commission in 1922, Long won a lawsuit against the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company for unfair rate increases, resulting in cash refunds of $440,000 to 80,000 overcharged customers. Long successfully argued the case on appeal before the United States Supreme Court (Cumberland Tel & Tel Co. v. Louisiana Public Service Commission, 260 U.S. 212 (1922), prompting Chief Justice William Howard Taft to describe Long as one of the best legal minds he had ever encountered. Awhile later, he took on Standard Oil.
Less than forty years before my family moved to Louisiana, there were only about 300 miles of paved roads and only three major bridges. Mr. Long, in the roles of Governor for four years and later as a Senator for three years, transformed this into 2,446 miles of cement roads, 1,308 miles of asphalt roads, double the miles of gravel roads and over forty bridges. He provided free textbooks which caused a twenty per cent rise in enrollment. Free night schools were set up that taught 100,000 formally illiterate adults to read. He built the new Capitol building where he was murdered as well as hospitals and the LSU School of Medicine. These things are only a smattering of the accomplishments of a man who's dying word's were, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.”
He intended to run for President and had a plan for limiting the amount of money that any one individual may own. History shows us the truth of the old saying about power, absolute power and their proportional relationship with corruption. Plainly, how could it harm a man to be “limited” to a fortune many times more than he could ever spend in thousands of lifetimes of utter luxury, while those around him starve? You may perhaps be interested to learn how and why he did these things. There are many books about that subject and of the several I have read, I must recommend to you Huey's autobiography, Every Man A King.
After reading the following excerpt from a Senate speech you might be inclined, as I was, to trust the veracity of the man's telling of his own story. Whether you choose an autobiography or a biography to learn about Long, the facts and figures of his life's work stand open for all to see. Here then, is the excerpt:
“Mr. President, I am not undertaking to answer the charge that I am ignorant. It is true. I am an ignorant man. I have had no college education. I have not even had a high school education. But the things that takes me far in politics is that I do not have to color what comes into my mind and into my heart. I say it unvarnished. I say it without veneer. I have not the learning to do otherwise, and therefore my ignorance is often not detected. I know the hearts of the People because I have not colored my own. I know when I am right in my own conscience. I do not talk one way in the cloakroom and another way out here. I do not talk one way back there in the hills of Louisiana and another way here in the Senate. I have one language. Ignorant as it is, it is the universal language within the sphere in which I operate. Its simplicity gains pardon for my lack of letters and education. Nonetheless 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 Long, U.S. Senate floor speech, March 5, 1935, six months before being shot
At the end of Every Man A King, there is a reprint of the above open letter. It was printed by the newspaper, American Progress, circa 1935. A publication which was started by Huey P. Long when he became Governor in 1928 as Louisiana Progress and re-named when he became a Senator. It is addressed to the gangster Al Capone. It strongly criticizes the relationship between J.P. Morgan (and associates) and the federal government and what they have been allowed to get away with, unlike Al Capone who is in prison for tax evasion. It goes as far as to claim that Morgan's company does the same thing but with federal approval. The catalyst for the letter was an assault of Huey P. Long at Long Island, New York. While there is no authorship claimed, I think Chief Justices Taft and Monroe would have worn knowing smiles if and when they ever chanced to read it. That is if they weren't too busy hunting ducks and alligators and playing the accordion.
Source - Broadsides and Ephemera Collection of the Duke University Library Digital Collection Item ID # bdsla60736 .
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.