Huey Long, aka “The Kingfish” aka “the Karl Marx of the Hillbillies” was a radical populist champion of the rural poor who served as Louisiana governor from 1928–32, and US Senator from 1932 until his assassination in 1935 when he was only 42 years old.
The charismatic, larger-than-life Long was the 3rd most famous American at his death, after FDR and Charles Lindberg. His unrealized goal was to challenge Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936 with his “Share Our Wealth” policy ideas that pushed considerably farther left then the New Deal. Long attacked large, powerful corporations, especially Standard Oil, and he was hugely revered by America’s underclass, rendered destitute by the Great Depression. Although his heavy-handed political tactics were derided as brutal, corrupt, and dictatorial, the quotable Long (“’Id rather violate every one of the damn conventions and see my bills passed, than sit back in my office, all nice and proper, and watch ’em die”) was unquestionably a loud voice for the voiceless.
Today’s progressive agenda from senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and President Joe Biden, are generally resurrected policy ambitions of Huey Long, unrealized after 80+ years. Even most of recent egalitarian suggestions of Thomas Piketty, the French economist, were expressed long ago by the fiery Long, expelled from high school, but later described as “the most brilliant lawyer” by a Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Long wasn’t communist or socialist; like Piketty his goal was to regulate capitalism, making the money it generated work for everyone.
As Louisiana Governor, Huey Long:
- Financed free public school education to all Louisiana children, white and black; this included bus transportation & free textbooks — it increased school enrollment by 20%
- Established adult literacy classes that helped 100,000 people learn to read.
- Expanded Louisiana State University with building construction and faculty hiring, plus he lowered the cost of tuition — this tripled enrollment. LSU was the 88th largest public university in 1928; by 1936 it was 11th.
- Taxed the rich to fund infrastructure; 111 bridges were built, reducing rural travel time and connecting previously isolated regions. His road-building programs increased Louisiana’s 300 miles of pavement in 1928 to 5,000 miles in 1932.
- Eliminated toll roads and bridges, saving the average family over $3,200 annually (in today’s currency)
- Eliminated taxes on every household’s first $2,000 of property; this benefitted 80% of the homeowners.
- Helped the poor by reducing automobile and truck license fees by 60–80%
- Helped the poor by reducing telephone rates 20–25% — he also reduced electricity rates.
- Halted foreclosures, providing families with a grace period to pay mortgages.
- Aided the poor by reducing the cost of utilities, goods & services
- Prevented bank closures, saving the assets of Louisiana residents. 4,800 banks in the USA collapsed between 1929–1932 — only seven were in Louisiana.
- Provided prison inmates with dental and medical care.
- Built state institutions for the mentally ill.
- Established State Charity Hospitals accessible to the poor.
- Tripled public healthcare, providing free immunization to rural areas. Launched 31 free clinics — this dropped mortality rates by 30%
- Eliminated the “poll tax.” Louisiana citizens who wanted to vote were required to pay this hefty fee, equivalent to a working day’s salary. When Governor Long ended this, 278,000 citizens registered to vote for the first time.
Huey Long’s Senate bills (all rejected) and his “Share Our Wealth” ideas for all Americans:
- Free college education and vocational training
- Free public health care
- Old age pensions for everyone over 60 (who earn less than $1,000 per year or possess less than $10,000 in assets)
- 30-hour work week with four weeks of vacation
- Veterans’ benefits for the sick and disabled, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects
- A $10 billion land reclamation project to end the Dust Bowl
- A “War on Disease”
- Limit annual income to $1 million (equivalent to almost $20 million today)
- He advocated a Wealth Tax. Fortunes above $1 million (almost $20 million today) taxed at 1 percent; above $2 million (almost $40 million today) taxed at 2 percent, up to a 100 percent tax on fortunes greater than $5 million (almost $100 million today).
- Cap personal fortunes and inheritances at $5 million (equivalent to almost $100 million today)
- Funds obtained from taxing the rich would be spent giving every family a grant (“household estate”) of $5,000 debt free (almost $100,000 today) and a minimal annual income of one-third the national average — “enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences, and the opportunity to educate their children”.
Huey Long’s ideas were wildly popular. More than 27,000 Share Our Wealth clubs were quickly organized nation-wide, with total membership of more than 7.5 million people, and Long receiving 60,000 letters a week. At the time, almost half of the US population lived in poverty, on the verge of starvation, earning less than $1,250 annually. Long believed the Great Depression was caused by the gross concentration of USA wealth in the hands of a few oligarchs. Speaking directly to the public in radio speeches or via his own newspaper The American Progress, Long expressed his economic egalitarian views:
“There is nothing wrong with the United States. We have more food than we can eat. We have more clothes and things out of which to make clothes than we can wear. We have more houses and lands than the whole 120 million can use if they all had good homes. So what is the trouble? Nothing except that a handful of men have everything and the balance of the people have nothing if their debts were paid. There should be every man a king in this land flowing with milk and honey instead of the lords of finance at the top and slaves and peasants at the bottom.”
Many of the causes Long championed are still being fought for today. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are advocating a wealth tax; Sanders has long urged the US to provide free health care and college education; Andrew Yang ran for President on a UBI platform; Biden has a $2 trillion infrastructure plan; the Peace and Freedom Party wants a 30-hour week.
The Kingfish’s ideas are still alive, urging others to aid the downtrodden.
Notes & References:
https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1935?amount=1. (Indicates $1 in 1935 is worth $19,33 in 2021)