Fascist or not, communist, dictator, demagogue, or political boss, Huey Long expanded the political horizons in Louisiana. He convinced the ordinary citizen that the power of state government had been used too long for the benefit of the wealthy few when, in fact, ordinary people should be the beneficiaries of a bounty of programs provided by an activist state administration. He created in the Pelican State a new, almost unlimited, vision of the goals that could be achieved through the use of political power. He was unerring in his vision of the politics of the possible on the state level, perhaps because he reached the point of control at which if his goals could not be achieved within the extant laws, he would simply have the legislature pass new laws to accommodate his vision. He was less surefooted in his vision of the art of the possible in the national political agenda.”
T. Harry Williams begins his biography by recalling a story Long shared while campaigning in south Louisiana, after being advised that unlike his native, majority Protestant Winn Parish, his audience down south would be predominately Catholic.
“When I was a boy,” Long told the crowd, “I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would hitch the old horse up again, and I would take my Baptist parents to church.”
As the story goes, one of Long’s colleagues later told him, “I didn’t know you had any Catholic grandparents.”
“Don’t be a damned fool,” Huey said. “We didn’t even have a horse.”
Although Huey P. Long’s singular influence in national politics would fade with his passing, in Louisiana, within six months of his death, there were already some who were lobbying for the Kingfish to be canonized.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that Huey P. Long was enlarged, even deified, in death, not only because his brief life came to represent a series of unrealized possibilities, but also because his political ascendance was largely constructed around a cult of personality.
That said, just as he was deified, Long was also demonized. To me, what is most astonishing is the extent to which people in Louisiana continue to have strong feelings about the Kingfish. Prior to publication on the Bayou Brief, I posted on social media a few of the images of Long that I transformed from black and white into full color, which you can find throughout this essay. In response, several commenters shared stories and family folklore about their own connections to Long, including at least two people who mentioned a close relative who was named “Huey Pierce” in his honor. In fact, while he was alive, there were so many babies being named after him, he had a supply of engraved tin cups—”Huey P. (fill in the blank)”—that he’d send to baby Hueys, along with a signed letter from the Kingfish himself.
But there were also a smattering of commenters fiercely critical of Long, including one person who called him “a corrupt politician and a demagogue.”
When PBS first aired the Ken Burns documentary Huey Long in 1986, 51 years after Long’s death, there were still millions of Louisianians old enough to remember life during Huey Long’s reign, including hundreds of thousands who could recall either voting for or against him.
The first voice we hear in Burns’ film, which can be streamed online for free until Dec. 31, 2025 through PBS’ website, belonged to Edmond Riggs of St. Martinville. “I would say Huey Long was a good man,” Riggs said. “He helped the poor. And he wrote a book, My First Days in the White House. And if they wouldn’t have killed him, I believe he would’ve been made president.”
“All my people, the whole family, voted for [Huey Long]” Myrtle Bigler, also of St. Martin Parish, told Burns. “We went ten miles in a speedboat to vote for him on Bayou Chene. And I think most of the Bayou Chene people all voted for him. Everyone in this part of the country loved him.”
“I went to every speech that Long made in Morgan City, every time he come [sic] to Morgan City,” her husband Harold said. “In my books, I don’t think there’s a man today as smart as what Long was. He could get under your skin. [But] if somebody hated Long, when he got through giving his talk, the ones that hated him, I think, they didn’t hate him any more.”
But this, of course, was obviously untrue, and when we hear from Long’s opponents, it’s impossible to ignore that, unlike his supporters, they appear to be exclusively upper-class, well-educated white conservatives.
70 miles north of Bayou Chene, in Tangipahoa Parish, Burns interviewed journalist and publisher Betty Werlein Carter, the widow of Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman Hodding Carter, Jr. In 1932, Betty and her husband founded the Hammond Daily Courier, a newspaper known for its fierce opposition to then-Gov. Huey Long.
“I can’t remember any Saturday night that I went anywhere that we [the Carters and their circle of friends] didn’t talk about killing Huey Long,” she told Burns.
A year after Long’s death, the Carters sold the Daily Courier and moved to Greenville, Mississippi, where they launched another newspaper, the Delta Star (later known as the Delta Democrat-Times). Notwithstanding their hostility toward Huey Long, both Betty and Hodding Carter became prominent Mississippi Democrats known for their outspoken support of the civil rights movement.
Burns also interviewed one of Louisiana’s most prominent anti-Long leaders, former Louisiana state Rep. Cecil Morgan, Sr., head of the so-called “Dynamite Squad,” a group of legislators who plotted Long’s impeachment after he attempted to impose a five-cent-a-barrel tax on oil refined in the state. Although it was not mentioned in Burns’ film, Morgan was responsible for floating the bogus allegation that Long had attempted to hire a hit man to murder state Rep. J.Y. Sanders, Jr.
Throughout the film, Morgan provided Burns with fascinating and substantive commentary about his former nemesis, and while he remained an outspoken critic of Huey Long, he acknowledged, somewhat remarkably, that he believed much of Long’s “program”—free schoolbooks, for example—was good, but disagreed primarily with how it was funded.
His most chilling remarks, however, concerned the political mood in Louisiana prior to Long’s death, which I’ve excerpted in the video below:
“Every time there was a gathering—I don’t care who the people were that I associated with—every time there was a gathering of two or three people, somebody would say, ‘That sonuvabitch oughta be shot,'” he recalled. “Somebody would say it, in every gathering. And the tension was so extremely high that- and the feeling was so strong- that there was hardly any other conversation throughout the state.”
Morgan left the legislature in 1934 after being elected to a judicial seat in Shreveport, but after only two years on the bench, he stepped down in order to become general counsel for Standard Oil. He remained in that position until 1963, when he was hired as dean of the Tulane University law school, a title he held for five years. In the Ken Burns film, he is introduced to viewers as “Judge Cecil Morgan.”
When Cecil Morgan passed away in 1999, after living through 100 extraordinary years, the Guardian characterized his death as having “severed the last historical link with the populist demagogue governor of Louisiana.”
Today, there are fewer than 75,000 people in Louisiana who were even alive on Sept. 10, 1935, and it’s likely that 111-year-old New Orleans resident Lawrence Brooks (he turns 112 in September) is now the only person in the state who would have been old enough to have voted in an election in which Huey Long appeared on the ballot, notwithstanding the difficulties that Brooks, as a Black man, would have encountered in registering to vote. (Brooks, by the way, is also the oldest known World War II veteran. He made the news earlier this year when he received a COVID vaccine).
In the Burns documentary, Huey’s oldest son, U.S. Sen. Russell Long, made a provocative but astute argument in defending his late father from his critics.
“It seemed to me to a large extent that his critics were confusing the forms of democracy with the fact of democracy,” said Sen. Long, the only person to ever have been preceded in the United States Senate by both of his parents. “The people’s votes didn’t do them much good until Huey Long came along. Maybe his enemies didn’t like his methods, but the people were getting what they voted for when he was governor and United States senator.”
He’s got a point.
Cecil Morgan, for example, in multiple interviews throughout his life, told the story of how, when he was a young state legislator, Gov. Long asked for his vote on a bill under consideration. “I can’t do it, Huey,” he recalled saying. “Why’s that?” the governor asked, at which point Morgan would begin rattling off a series of high-minded conservative platitudes about his belief in local control and self-governance (tellingly, he never was able to remember the specific piece of legislation in dispute).
According to Morgan, as the story goes, when he returned home that night, he learned that his father had been fired from the administrative job he had in state government, the obvious implication being that his father’s termination was retribution for opposing the imperial Kingfish. Huey Long used the instruments of his office’s power to dismantle the political establishment—one that was functionally a plutocracy— in the same ways that his predecessors used them to construct it. Cecil Morgan told that story well into his nineties, presumably because he thought it illustrated Long’s dictatorial impulses. But in my opinion, the story reveals a whole lot more about how privileged and entitled Long’s opponents could be. Remember, Morgan not only led the impeachment effort against Long in retaliation for Long’s decision to impose a severance tax on Standard Oil, he would later work for the majority of his professional career as Standard Oil’s general counsel. Why would he be surprised that Long wasn’t exactly keen on allowing his father to keep his political patronage job?
Six days after Long’s death, H.O. Thompson, a correspondent for United Press, made an obvious point that bears repeating. In a column headlined “Huey P. Long’s Final Objective Must Remain Forever Unknown,” Thompson explained the “two divisions” of thought about Long: “(1) [He] was a flaming demagogue, or (2) that he was the leader of a new crusade in American political and social life.” Long died before he could be accurately defined, Thompson argued. The debate, therefore, rages on, forever unresolvable.
“The power and the hatred were only one side of the Huey Long phenomenon,” Alan Brinkley wrote in his 1982 book Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. “The other was the record of accomplishment he created during his years in control and the unwavering support, even adulation he received from the plain people who formed the vast majority of the state’s population. It was for them, he claimed, that he built hundreds of miles of paved highways, provided free textbooks, constructed bridges, hospitals, schools, and a major university. It was for them that he revised the state tax codes, for them that he railed against the oil companies and utilities that had dominated Louisiana for decades. The people responded by resoundingly electing Long and his candidates to office time and time again.”
In their aforementioned essay “The Rusticity and Religiosity of Huey P. Long,” J. Michael Hogan and Glen Williams argue that the characterization of Long as a “Southern demagogue reflects a cultural bias, even a sort of elitist stereotyping, in the scholarly literature.”
“Uncomfortable with radical mass politics among poor, uneducated rural folk in the South, some have used the word ‘demagogue’ as an epithet rather than a technical term, applying the label to Long and others who, for personal or cultural reasons, they find distasteful,” they write. “Long’s reputation as a demagogue reflects a prejudice grounded not in ideology, but in an intellectual aversion to his indecorous, vituperative, and revivalistic brand of democratic populism…. Long’s principal biographer, T. Harry Williams, urged us to ‘dispense of the word demagogue in dealing with men like Long and employ instead a term suggested by Eric Hoffer, mass leader.’ Yet Long remains typecast as the archetypal Southern demagogue, and we have ignored Williams’ insight that he possessed something of that ‘quality that political scientist call charism.'”
This dialectical tension— between Long the person and Long the political persona, between Long the beloved and brilliant ‘mass leader’ and Long the dangerous ‘Southern demagogue’—cannot be overlooked or disregarded as irrelevant in any discussion concerning the circumstances of his death or the possible motives of his alleged assassin, Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr.
While I recognize that opinions about Long, for many, are deeply engrained, often more informed by one’s cultural and political biases than any attempt at dispassionately evaluating the factual record or the historical context, I find the analysis of Glen Williams and J. Michael Hogan to be particularly persuasive.
At the Huey Long Symposium in 2010, Russell Long Mosely argued that contemporaneous news coverage of his great-grandfather was almost entirely negative. It wasn’t an exaggeration, particularly with respect to the national press. As I’ve discovered in my own research on Carlos Marcello, syndicated opinion columnists like Washington Merry-Go-Round‘s Drew Pearson, who possessed close ties with political elites and was known for trading on gossip and innuendo, held enormous influence over the public’s perception and understanding of stories alleging political corruption and criminal conspiracies, despite the fact that these stories quite frequently had little basis in reality.
Perhaps Huey Long defies simple explanation. Or perhaps he said it best himself: “I am suis generis, and let it go at that.”