By Tom Morrow
Huey Pierce Long Jr., born Aug. 30, 1893, was a socialist-leaning Democrat who nicknamed himself “The Kingfish” after a radio character (Amos ‘n’ Andy). He served as the 40th governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as a member of the United States Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935.
As the political leader of Louisiana, Long commanded wide networks of supporters and was willing to take forceful action. He established the long-term political prominence of the Long family. His son, Russell Long, served many years as a U.S. senator after Huey’s death.
Long developed his own solution to poverty: “Share Our Wealth” program, which would establish a net asset tax, the earnings of which would be redistributed so as to curb the poverty and homelessness epidemic nationwide during the Great Depression.
During Long’s years in power, great strides were made in Louisiana infrastructure, education and health care. Long was notable among southern politicians for avoiding race baiting. Long sought to improve the lot of poor blacks as well as poor whites.
Under Long’s leadership, hospitals and educational institutions were expanded; a system of charity hospitals was set up that provided health care for the poor; massive highway construction, and bridges brought an end to rural isolation. Historian David Kennedy wrote that the extremely authoritarian regime Long established in Louisiana was “… the closest thing to a dictatorship that America has ever known.”
Every state employee who depended on Long for a job was expected to pay a portion of his or her salary at election time directly into Long’s political war-chest, which raised $50,000 to $75,000 (equivalent to more than $1 million in 2018 dollars) each election cycle. The funds were kept in Long’s famous locked “deduct box” to be used at Long’s discretion for political and personal purposes.
Long’s” Share Our Wealth” plan was established in 1934 with the motto “Every Man a King.” Long argued his plan would enable everyone to have at least a car, a radio, and a home worth $5,000.
When Long secured passage of his free textbook program, the school board of Caddo Parish, home of conservative Shreveport, sued to prevent the books from being distributed, saying it would not accept “charity” from the state. Long responded by withholding authorization for locating an Army Air Corps base nearby until the parish (county) accepted the books.
Long maintained Standard Oil, the corporate interests, and the conservative political opposition were conspiring to stop him from providing roads, books, and other programs to develop the state and to assist the poor and downtrodden.
In February 1934, Long introduced his Share Our Wealth plan over a nationwide radio broadcast. He proposed to limit an annual family income guarantee of $2,000–3,000, or one-third of the average family homestead value and income.
Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free college education and vocational training for all able students, old-age pensions, veterans’ benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, greater federal regulation of economic activity, a month’s vacation for every worker and limiting the work week to 30 hours to boost employment.
Even during his days as a traveling salesman, Long had confided to his wife that his planned-career trajectory would begin with election to a minor state office, then governor, then U.S. senator, and ultimately President of the United States. In his final months, Long followed up his earlier autobiography, Every Man a King, with a second book titled My First Days in the White House, laying out his plans for the presidency after the election of 1936. The book was published posthumously.
It all came to an end on Sept. 8, 1935, when Long was at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge attempting to oust a long-time opponent. Carl Weiss, a physician, approached Long, and shot him with a handgun from four feet away. Long’s bodyguards returned fire with more than 30 shots, instantly killing Weiss.
Long died on Sept. 10. His body was dressed in a tuxedo and lay under the State Capitol rotunda with some 200,000 passing by for his funeral. Long was buried on the grounds of the State Capitol, and a statue at his grave depicts his achievements. Also, a statue of Long is in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.
Long legacy continued in Louisiana through his wife, U.S. Sen. Rose McConnell Long; his son, Russell and his brothers, Earl Long and George S. Long, as well as several other more distant relatives.
In many cases the good he achieved outweighed the bad, but it was Long’s extreme bad conduct and dictatorial control over state government that ultimately brought him down. Reportedly, his infamous “Deduct Box” has never been found.
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