Some moviegoers will remember urbane Paul Newman miscast as the earthy and irascible Earl Long in Blaze (1989). The film was scripted in part from Blaze Starr: My Life as Told to Huey Perry (1974), a nightclub stripper’s ghosted autobiography styled a novel, but in the main from folklore. Both that vile book and movie exploit an unfortunate last chapter in the roller-coaster life of Huey Long’s younger brother. He did not gain political maturity until 20 years— including those of the Great Depression and the Second World War—after Huey’s watershed election as governor, in 1928 when he was 34, ended a half-century of Louisiana’s domination by an oligarchy.
Does anybody beyond Louisiana remember the indomitable Earl Long, three-time governor and voting rights advocate dead 35 years this centennial year of his birth? In some inspired historian’s picture-perfect Annals of Civil Rights in the United States: The Slow Never-Ending Search for Human Dignity never to be written, Earl Long would rank far below Nat Turner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Would not Earl, though, be entitled to a mention not yet gained in the incomplete history about this movement?
Nor does the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, contain either Earl’s baggy stumping suit or a copy of A. J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana: The Liberal Long (1961). Neglect would derive from Earl’s uncouthcunning if winning political style that, like Huey’s buffoonery that did not play in Washington and New York, offended the sensibilities of corporate African-America and some historians—and with good reason.
At issue here looms also the question of how Earl Long’s contribution to the cause of voting rights for minorities shall be attributed as between ambition and altruism. Or should a dichotomy be postulated? Who accomplishes anything in the absence of personal ambition? Liebling conferred a peerage in recognition of Earl’s record-setting voter registration of African-Americans in Louisiana (it led all other Southern states by about six lengths) during a first full term as governor, 1948-1952, and for resisting attempts to purge the rolls during his second term, 1956-1960.
In fairness to the museum, however, in endorsing a policy directed against racial slurs and demeaning invective, you would acknowledge that the curator held no choice but to refuse exhibiting Earl Long memorabilia during a time of rising political correctness that obscures reality. Not even America, founded on a vaunted espousal of equality, though late in abolishing human slavery (that, to remind in fairness, had been facilitated by African chieftans of the blood), has achieved ethnic tranquility. As everywhere else in the world, East and West and on every continent, ethnic hostility ebbs and flows in America—as much or more beyond the South as in the South. Costs of provinciality match its animus.
Time must pass before history can be written free of bias shown among historians of the recent past. C. Vann Woodward, dean of Southern historians, reveals this in Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (1986). When a young historian and heretic, Woodward found that Southern history had swept the Populist movement under the rug. He got the notion of grafting an account of Southern Populism onto the stunted magnolia of Southern history by writing a biography of a Populist politician from Georgia, Tom Watson, who had gained national prominence as a contemporary of William Jennings Bryan.
Woodward’s first book, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), launched him on a career as a published historian; it recovered Watson from oblivion. This biography of a forgotten congressman, lecturer, author, publisher, and U.S. senator has survived in print against long odds. It gained classic status in Southern literature during a half-century and more that has witnessed a decline in history as literature and the rise of a new genre of history from academia essential for recovering more than the past’s paraphrase.
In The Future of the Past (1989) Woodward expresses regret that the traditional affiliation between history and creative literature—and literary criticism—has declined. Like contemporary poets, many of today’s American historians seem to be writing for each other instead of for the general reader; but so do literary scholars and academicians of all disciplines. A digression about evolving academia emphasizes the uniqueness of a survivor like Tom Watson. Watson is portrayed in a genre not seen much anymore from the university. This reduces the likelihood that Earl Long’s tainted wizardry on behalf of voting rights will be told by historians—unless those not put off by a demagogue’s convoluted pragmatism.
To do justice to the problem posed by Earl Long would require that a scholar-generalist make excursions not only into biography and history but into sociology, psychology, political science, rhetoric, and poetry. Earl’s machinations mystified not only political opponents but also contemporary journalists—and to an extent Liebling, who grasped much about a fellow horse player, and the authors of a recent biography, Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl and Louisiana Politics (1990), Michael L. Kurtz and Morgan D. Peoples, who told it straight but not with the depth and detail of T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long (1969), a book thrice its length. Earl did not fool William J. Dodd as political memoirist in Peapatch Politics: The Earl Long Political Era in Louisiana (1991), although when Earl’s first lieutenant governor it took
Dodd a while to find out that Earl’s confidences were smoke with a long-lasting pungency.
Coincidence of coincidences, a reading of Tom Watson calls up the precise challenge Earl Long faced and how he might have responded—but did not—to civil rights unrest in the racist lower South following the Second World War as did Watson following the First World War. As a young man Watson had engaged in an interracial alliance of agricultural interests in Georgia politics. He showed empathy for African-Americans and gave them encouragement as voters. In later life and during a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1920 he turned into a white supremacist and racial bigot when that strategy had become a political expedient. Watson took to both Jim Crow and Old Crow. This volte-face Woodward explores with a biographer’s concern in trying to comprehend the enigmatic Watson—and you suspect that Woodward the young historian, disappointed in Watson, could not plumb some studs of political reality for their misalignment.
In Thinking Back Woodward cites but rejects a notion advanced by Richard Hofstader for explaining Watson’s abandonment of an earlier view about race when in old age he became a race-baiting demagogue. Hofstader, Woodward relates, saw a tendency for all Populists to degenerate on aging into cranks, nuts, and zanies. Some Louisianians—and others who would have followed in the national media Earl Long’s bizarre behavior during the last year of his life—might agree with Hofstader’s theory as applying to Earl. He had been reared under Populism’s influence, and like Huey demonstrated a career-long neo-Populism in advancing a progressive agenda—and exhibited zaniness in old age that Huey did not live to know.
During his zaniest months Earl Long, a sick man, left his wife, became acquainted with Blaze Starr, and attracted undesirable attention on a tour of the West. His actual mental breakdown, so-called, which led to two short and involuntary respites in asylums, was associated with his dedication to Old Crow and that of political opponents to Jim Crow. It occurred during a legislative session in 1959, the next-to-last year of his governorship and life. In a tirade of an hour and a half his far-ranging and intemperate remarks betrayed frustration over conflict with white racists in the legislature who were leading a purge of African-Americans from voter registration rolls and had succeeded in legislating an expanded Jim Crow code. The civil rights controversy, in those years approaching its violent climax, was dominating governance in Louisiana and in all Southern states. A few base whites were engaging in vigilantism not opposed by local authorities in some venues.
You can visualize Earl’s concern, considering that he had risked his political capital on the side of voting rights for African-Americans; and in the doing—as events unfolded— stood to get wiped out along with his clients. How in the first place he succeeded in maintaining a hazardous balance in gaining election to a second term as governor confirms the complexity of his genius and contrariness. It raises the fundamental question of the nature of his motives, unlike those of Watson in earlier Georgia, in not flip-flopping to side with an inflamed white majority in an Alamo of massive resistance, a Southern strategy devised in Virginia.
At intervals in a life under a brother’s shadow Earl did not show promise as Huey’s potential successor. Born Aug. 26, 1895, two years Huey’s junior, Huey’s boyhood pal, and subsequent gofer and fixer—and favorite brother of five able and accomplished sisters for his generosity to father and invalid sister, Earl would appear sometimes unreliable as well as duplicitous. Not as brilliant as Huey the family prodigy, although later he could show patience and cunning beyond Huey’s, somehow Earl would make untimely goofs.
He suffered 16 difficult years after breaking with Huey in 1932 and becoming a Judas figure who was anathema to most of Huey’s close associates. Some never forgave him; all withheld affection. Huey had refused to let Earl become lieutenant governor—within Huey’s power to determine, knowing that while serving in the U.S. Senate to seek the presidency the able and wily Earl, ringmaster of legislators, would be running Louisiana instead of Huey through a caretaker governor. Denied his own chance at age 36, Earl turned on Huey with accusations that would have brought indictments against a less-influential politician. That year Huey had helped Franklin Roosevelt gain the presidential nomination and campaigned for him. Nevertheless, upon Huey’s death in 1935 at age 42, Huey’s political executors placed Earl on the Long ticket as candidate for lieutenant governor for the value of his surname. The ticket won by a landslide. Earl succeeded to the governorship in 1939 when the governor resigned before widespread scandal began to surface. Earl, although uninvolved in the scandals other than as witness, lost in a close race for governor in 1940 and again for lieutenant governor in 1944. Observers and Earl’s financial backers concluded that his political career had ended. Earl did not agree. He devoted the next four years to mending ways and fences.
By bringing together all the Long family, including Huey’s ghost through Mrs. Huey Long and Huey’s look-alike able son Russell, and organizing a broad-based consortium of support comparable to that Huey had garnered, Earl captured the statehouse in 1948. (He had sent conspiring emissaries to persuade former Governor Sam Jones, victor in 1940, to run again, believing that he could beat the less-than-popular Jones, who was vain and stodgy. Jones split and disorganized the anti-Long vote, according to Earl’s prescription.) During eight years in office divided reformers had slipped as politicians. Reform had lost its issue of opposing corruption and some philanthropists to Earl. A new generation of conservative idealists campaigned from offices and clubs and began dreaming of a think tank that could outthink Earl and supply facts to the media, Rotary, and pork-prone chambers of commerce.
In office, aware he could not succeed himself, Earl took up where Huey and successors left off by increasing support for education, highways, health services; and he inaugurated a $50-per-month old-age pension: all through increasing taxes, abolishing civil service, and losing popularity among the prudent who were a growing and vocal minority. Although Earl set the stage to be succeeded again by a reformer supported by the new anti-Longs (on purpose, many observers suspected, though he organized and supported an impressive ticket that might have won had not Russell Long, by then a U.S. senator and at odds with an uncle difficult to love, supported for governor Congressman Hale Boggs of New Orleans), he was looking forward to regaining the statehouse in 1956. He knew that his successor and idealists would push their cases to an unpopular extreme; and he knew something else that other aspirants did not comprehend.
During his term drawing to a close, Earl had promoted voter registration of African-Americans in unprecedented numbers: from 22,572 to 107,844, the largest number in any Southern state or any state not a large industrial state. Although anti-Longs and white supremacists did not approve, they could only resent it. So when Earl ran for governor again in 1955, he began about 100,000 votes ahead of opposition candidates splitting the white vote.
You can imagine Earl’s predicament when the campaign started, and opponents accused Earl of being the “nigger” candidate. Racists were incensed. Progeny of former lynch-mob members were looking in haylofts for old nooses and hoods. Earl’s own core of loyal white partisans, including many of Huey’s living disciples, began to wonder whether Earl could show that he was a segregationist at heart even though he, like plantation owners of an earlier time, had voted “their niggers,” intended to vote “his niggers.”
Earl realized he must devise a straddling tactic. Only a standup comic and entertainer like Earl, who alone by the mid-fifties could draw a crowd at a speaking in the face of television and air conditioning in the homes, would have been able to survive the stigma of being branded the “nigger candidate.” He faced it head-on as a rhetorical challenge. At one of his first speakings he began experimenting with how to get on both sides of the race question in the same breath. By day’s end he had composed lines that trilled: “I’m the best friend the poor white man and the colored man ever had … but I’m a thousand percent for segregation!” It caught on. As the campaign heated up and racist candidates exploited the race issue, Earl would give variations of his couplet. It began to echo across the state like an advertising jingle. Supporters recited it. Earl would repeat it several times in the same speech.
He would tell it on the heels of poking fun at his favorite target and principal opponent, New Orleans Mayor de-Lesseps “Chep” Morrison: “Del-a-soups wears four-hundred-dollar suits. Oh yeah. Why, if I wore a suit like that it would look like socks on a rooster. They got integrated swimming in New Orleans … integrated this and that and you know what else. Oh yeah. Let me tell you good people something. Niggers got no business in our schools. Why, a hundred years ago they were eatin’ each other. Oh yeah. Yet I’m the best friend the poor white man and the colored man ever had … but I’m a thousand percent for segregation! You know it. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that right?” Amens would respond.
The straddle succeeded. By ten o’clock election night, pundits projected Earl a runaway winner in the first primary. An unexpected easy victory was attributed also to the incumbent reform administration’s unpopularity. A rejuvenated coalition had regained considerable influence in the legislature, but had deferred agreeing on a gubernatorial candidate to support until a second primary not to be held. Not even Huey had done that, Earl enjoyed saying.
Although Huey had repealed the poll tax a generation earlier and gained the good will of African-Americans in Louisiana for that and for not waving the Rebel flag and yelling “nigger” while campaigning (but not the approval of Roy Wilkins and other activists in the NAACP), he had not launched a voter registration drive among African-Americans. Earl saw the times ripe for this, in 1948, notwithstanding that the Democratic Party had been torn by the civil rights issue and that the Dixiecrat ticket would carry Louisiana in the presidential election of 1948. Governors in other Southern states did not see the times as ripe.
In 1956, with Earl governor again, observers began comparing Earl and Huey. Acknowledging that but for Huey probably no other member of the Long family would have reached high office in Louisiana (another brother and two distant cousins, Longs, went to Congress from Huey’s home district while Russell Long was becoming resigned to a career in the Senate never to be governor), some intimates who had known Huey too saw Earl as more effective among politicians and in extracting campaign funds from the Mob and players in business and industry, forgetting how Huey had excelled in both roles a generation earlier. Some said Earl was a punk compared to Huey, who taught Earl what he knew. Earl did seem to enjoy a steady diet of campaigning while out of office. Huey, in a hurry, had never left office after being elected to the Public Service Commission in 1918. Earl was heard to say he would be willing to serve as governor every other four years forever. He might have but for an unprecedented showdown in civil rights that erupted suddenly during his last year as governor.
Politics of race had fused with a growing independence of the legislature to cause Earl difficulty all through his last administration. He showed the strain. He had lost some of his snap and ability to bridle a hot temper and vindictiveness. Age and infirmities were showing in his face and demeanor. He began dismissing sage confidants, replacing them with sycophants. You could see how he despised racist legislators as hypocrites. He set upon former lieutenants who had voted for new Jim Crow legislation he had no choice but to sign.
By 1959 racists had purged the voter rolls of 15,326 African-Americans. In response Earl sought legislation to prohibit challenges of voters registered more than a year or who had made but negligible errors in registering. The Senate, including some of his closest allies, spurned him. That’s how rough it got. This showdown triggered the crackup that ended Earl’s effective public life and brought about a last year of airing linen in public familiar to those who remember seeing Blaze. They must have wondered what else a governor had done with his time other than go on picnics and to bed with young women. Earl had done a lot.
His unique political strategy of historical import, though defaced by a tactic necessary for survival as a public man, did not follow that of Tom Watson displayed under similar circumstances years earlier in Georgia. Doubtless Earl Long did not disappoint C. Vann Woodward like Watson did during a resurgence of white supremacy. Had he known the dynamic of this imbroglio, Woodward might have used Earl Long as a biographical vehicle to show that, contrary to the received history of civil rights in America, a legacy of Populism prevailed against the grain of racism in Louisiana following the Second World War. Richard Hofstader’s theory about zaniness of Populists in old age notwithstanding, Earl Long did not take the expedient course to vote-getting during a racial firestorm. As etymologist he had distinguished racist and segregationist.
Or did Earl, alone among Southern governors, promote voter registration of African-Americans on a large scale in 1948 for mere political gain? In 1959 the U.S. Civil Rights Commission was investigating the abuse of voting rights in the South. Harry S. Ashmore in Hearts and Minds: The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan (1982) tells of a relevant incident:
When urban blacks became a political force in Louisiana, a true believer named Willie Rainich got himself named chairman of a joint legislative committee and set out to reduce their registration from 130,000 to 13,000. But when Rainich pressured state officials to refuse to divulge voting records to the agents of the Civil Rights Commission, Gov. Earl Long met privately with its representative, Berl Bernhard, and told him: “You’re here to help the niggers vote, and I am for you because they’re my niggers and I want their vote … Now, we’re never going to talk about my helping you, but I’m gonna get my state registrar to give you the records you need, and after you talk to him, you remember, you never saw me.”
Earl’s plain language told in confidence confirms that he promoted extension of the franchise of African-Americans, at least for one reason, to get their votes. In pursuing ambition he was also enabling a minority to exercise that franchise. Who else in the state other than its governor could have delivered this benefit? How else could he have done it without getting elected? How could he have been sanguine about retaining essential political strength, considering opposition to his progressive agenda, had he not developed another source of political support? How does all this add up?
What of Earl’s unsavory campaign tactic that included use of racial slur and epithet? Not pleasing for some to hear at the time or to read out of context in print, Earl had deemed it necessary within a considered political strategy. Others will judge him. Some biographer may sort it out. His catchy couplet, though, a quotation suitable for anthologizing, smacks of truth:
I’m the best friend the poor white man and the colored man ever had … but I’m a thousand percent for segregation!
These lines, a theme in his last campaign for governor, in retrospect a brilliant tactic, enabled him to prevail during a dreadful inning in Southern politics. However otherwise vetted, Earl Long occupies a corner in history yet to be written in juxtaposition to Tom Watson—yet no less enigmatic a man than Watson—and alone among contemporary Southern governors of the 1940’s and 1950’s as a voting rights champion for African-Americans.