Rehabilitating the Kingfish

J+B-164_Huey-Long-the-Kingfisher
Huey P. Long, a.k.a. The Kingfish.

Mike Whitney has posted an article on CounterPunch titled Our Chavez: Huey Long. There seems to be an effort in recent years on the part of some people to to try to portray the sometime governor of Louisiana and U.S.Senator as a great champion of the people, no doubt because of his ant-capitalist rhetoric. Yet when one takes a closer look at his life, it becomes clear that things were not that simple.

During Long’s lifetime, most of the Left regarded him with deep wariness, if not outright hostility. There were good reasons for that. First of all, he governed Louisiana as a virtual dictator. He even organized a secret police force to keep watch on his opponents as well as on his followers.

Long was also a white supremacist. He maintained Louisisana’s Jim Crow laws. (Long would sometimes smear his opponents by spreading rumors that they had “coffee blood”. This gives a bitter irony to calling him “our Chavez”.) Long’s apologists point out that he didn’t talk about white supremacy in his speeches. This was perhaps because he didn’t need to. In 1935, Roy Wilkins interviewed Long for The Criis. They discussed an anti-lynching bill that Long opposed in the Senate:

    How about lynching. Senator? About the Costigan-Wagner bill in congress and that lynching down there yesterday in Franklinton…”

    He ducked the Costigan-Wagner bill, but of course, everyone knows he is aganst it. He cut me off on the Franklinton lynching and hastened in with his “pat” explanation:

    “You mean down in Washington parish (county)? Oh, that? That one slipped up on us. Too bad, but those slips will happen. You know while I was governor there were no lynchings and since this man (Governor Allen) has been in he hasn’t had any. (There have been 7 lynchings in Louisiana in the last two years.) This one slipped up. I can’t do nothing about it. No sir. Can’t do the dead nigra no good. Why, if I tried to go after those lynchers it might cause a hundred more niggers to be killed. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    “But you control Louisiana,” I persisted, “you could…”

    “Yeah, but it’s not that simple. I told you there are some things even Huey Long can’t get away with. We’ll just have to watch out for the next one. Anyway that nigger was guilty of coldblooded murder.”

    “But your own supreme court had just granted him a new trial.”

    “Sure we got a law which allows a reversal on technical points. This nigger got hold of a smart lawyer somewhere and proved a technicality. He was guilty as hell. But we’ll catch the next lynching.”

    My guess is that Huey is a hard, ambitious, practical politician. He is far shrewder than he is given credit for being. My further guess is that he wouldn’t hesitate to throw Negroes to the wolves if it became necessary; neither would he hesitate to carry them along if the good they did him was greater than the harm. He will walk a tight rope and go along as far as he can. He told New York newspapermen he welcomed Negroes in the share-the-wealth clubs in the North where they could vote, but down South? Down South they can’t vote: they are no good to him. So he lets them strictly alone. After all, Huey comes first.

In 1934, Long created the Share Our Wealth Society, which had clubs all over the country. He chose as its national organizer Gerald L.K. Smith, an outspoken anti-Semite and a former member of a fascist group called the Silver Shirts. Long also formed a political alliance with the ant-Semitic radio broadcaster, Father Coughlin, who expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini and who claimed that the Russian Revolution was the work of Jewish bankers. Lance Hill has argued that the Share Our Wealth movement was an incipient form of fascism.

According to Wikipedia:

    Long .. planned to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936, knowing he would lose the nomination but gain valuable publicity in the process. Then he would break from the Democrats and form a third party using the Share Our Wealth plan as its basis … The new party would run someone else as its 1936 candidate, but Long would be the primary campaigner. This candidate would split the progressive vote with Roosevelt, causing the election of a Republican but proving the electoral appeal of Share Our Wealth. Long would then run for president as a Democrat in 1940. In the spring of 1935, Long undertook a national speaking tour and regular radio appearances, attracting large crowds and increasing his stature.

This scheme came to naught, as Long was assassinated in 1935. The Share Our Wealth movement quickly dwindled after that. The reasons for this may be that the economic recovery of 1934-36 strengthened support for Roosevelt, and that the revitalized labor movement probably drew in people who might otherwise have been attracted to Share Our Wealth.

It is often tempting to idealize figures from the past, yet if we hope to actually learn from them, we have to look at these people for what they actually were.

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5 Responses to “Rehabilitating the Kingfish”

  1. Counterpunch Takes the White Supremacist Road. | Tendance Coatesy Says:

    […] from beloved comrade Spanish Prisoner is a […]

  2. Michael Leuker Says:

    I commented on the shortened version of this article about 5 months ago on the “Shiraz Socialist” blog and felt like editing and posting my reply again here.

    Before I get started: Huey Long is one of my favorite US politicians and I really believe that he could have changed the country for the better had he been given the chance. He convinced me with his Evangeline speech in 1928 and the turbulent years that followed: Had I lived then, I would have followed this man through thick and thin, special sessions, deduct boxes, political strongarming and – if need be – short-term kidnappings … all in the name of the common people. That being said, here the edited comment:

    Calling Huey Long a racist and white supremacist when he was a moderate compared to other Southern politicians and rarely engaged in “nigger-baiting” is quite ridiculous. He was a child of his time, yes, but then, he also was so far ahead of it: Black people actually praised him for his reforms that benefited many of them just as much as poor white folk. Someone mentioned that “compared to” and “rarely” don’t really disarm the above statements, but isn’t that an “all-or-nothing” argument? Just because we can’t do everything does not mean we can’t do anything, especially in politics.

    Long actually took a strong position against the Ku Klux Klan in the 30s, calling its then leader “… a son of a bitch, and I’m not referring to the circumstances of his birth.” There were allegations that he was a member of the Klan at some point … all lies as it turned out. He also called Hitler a SOB and criticized him for mixing up politics and religion. If you want to compare him to any of the dictators of that time, Mussolini comes to mind first and foremost … pre-war and Nazi-ally years Mussolini.

    To accuse Huey of upholding the Jim Crow laws 30 years before it became even remotely possible to challenge and change them shows obliviousness of the historical facts. The Kingfish did more for black people than anyone could have realistically expected and he did it without causing the ugly scenes of the 60s and 70s. His was a gradual change that would have uplifted all of those in need, regardless of the color of their skin.

    Could he work miracles? No. As he said, there are some things that even Huey Long couldn’t get away with. In spite of all his obvious shortcomings, I don’t doubt for a second that he ever forgot about his true clients: The fishermen of the bayous, the redneck farmers and hill people and, after he became a senator, people in need all over the United States.

    Did it serve his agenda? It sure did. Did Huey Long have a Huge ego to satisfy? Boy, did he ever! But what has that to do with anything? Serving the landless masses sure has served the Gracchi brother’s agenda (and probably their ego). They nevertheless sincerely wanted to help those in need and change thinsg for the better. Democracy isn’t worth the paper it’s statutes are written on if it doesn’t serve the people it claims to represent. Those people are not the corporations and special interests holding our capitalistic system hostage then and now. His methods may not have been the most democratic ones, but his results were; and isn’t that all that really matters?

    • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

      “Calling Huey Long a racist and white supremacist when he was a moderate compared to other Southern politicians and rarely engaged in “nigger-baiting” is quite ridiculous.”

      Instead of occasionally engaging in “nigger-baiting”, wouldn’t it have been more constructive for Long to explain to whites and blacks that they have common interests and who their real enemies are?

      “If you want to compare him to any of the dictators of that time, Mussolini comes to mind first and foremost … pre-war and Nazi-ally years Mussolini.”

      You mean the Mussolini who crushed the labor unions and persecuted socialists? You mean the Mussolini who committed atrocities in Libya and in Ethiopia?

      “The Kingfish did more for black people than anyone could have realistically expected and he did it without causing the ugly scenes of the 60s and 70s.”

      By “ugly scenes”, I assume you mean black people struggling for their own liberation, rather than looking to a white messiah?

      I don’t understand why anyone would look to Long when US history offers many more inspiring figures, beginning with Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, Eugene Debs, and Mother Jones.

      • Michael Leuker Says:

        Thank you for mentioning those other people who all did a lot of good for the people without resorting to the means that Huey employed to get things done. On the other hand, one might argue that they didn’t achieve nearly as much as he did in his few years in power and let’s not forget that by the time he was killed, he was just getting started to leave his mark on US politics. The whole “New Deal” would never have shifted as far to the left as it did if it wasn’t for him.

        As for being a dictator in the fascist sense, you mentioned a couple of points where a comparison with the likes of Mussolini clearly doesn’t make sense. Huey Long was more of an isolationist and would never have started a foreign war to satisfy colonial ambitions. He also would have preferred to work with the labour unions rather than to shatter them. And while he wasn’t adverse to using strong methods, he said himself that if he ever had to kill a man to gain ground in politics, he would throw it all away.

        Perhaps it is more appropriate to compare him to a dictator in the ancient Roman Republic who had been granted special powers to fix things and then retire once the goals had been achieved. There are hints that Huey would have done just that, e.g. he mentioned that he would gladly retire if the president enacted his Share-our-Wealth plan. He also said that he despised his own methods, but that they were necessary to get things done – and let’s be honest here: He was right. The way things were in those days, there was not much he effectively could have done otherwise …

        … and the people loved him for it, black and white! Just look how many of them showed up at his funeral and genuinely mourned his death. I don’t see anything bad in a revolution from above if it is doing good for the people and if it doesn’t disempower them but rather gives them access to the resources that otherwise would have remained in the hands of a chosen few. Popular revolutions and riots are legitimate means of political expression if all other means have failed, but that doesn’t make them pretty –

        The black cause in the 60s and 70s was totally justified, but perhaps all the unrest and riots could have been avoided with a healthy dose of pragmatism and realpolitik; which would have meant giving black leaders access to power and thus making “white saviors” unnecessary. Black political liberation at that point was decades away and any attempt to to start it would have been instant political suicide.

        In a way, Huey did tell the people who their real enemies were. Instead of cozying up to the special interests, he made it his program to curb their excesses and have them pay their share. Prohibiting 20% telephone bill raises, giving out textbooks to schoolchildren, building bridges and roads and hospitals profited all people. The Kingfish knew them like few others did and he knew that politics is the art of the utmost possible at a given point in time. Instead of lofty but in the end unattainable ideals, those voting for him as well as those who weren’t allowed to vote, got lasting change.

        • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

          You have said nothing about the fact that Long picked a fascist, Gerald L.K. Smith, to be the national organizer of Share Our Wealth. Nor have you said anything about Long’s alliance with Father Coughlin. I suspect you will say it was an unfortunate necessity that Long had to work with such people. But what does this say about the nature of Long’s whole political project? It’s possible that Long could unleashed some destructive forces had he lived.

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