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Louisiana's Kingfish muddies the waters again : Iconoclastic town wants to honor its iconoclastic son. But some say Huey Long is best forgotten.

April 05, 1993|GARRY BOULARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WINNFIELD, La. — For the merchants and the poor hill farmers around this economically depressed town of 7,200, the spirit of Huey P. Long, the local boy who rose to become a lightning rod of social protest in the 1930s, has returned, offering salvation.

"Almost everyone in town is pulling together on this," said George Wyatt, the executive director of Winnfield's Chamber of Commerce. "This is our chance not only to make money and business, but also to let the whole world know we're here, to open our doors to everyone."

Some outsiders, historians among them, are less enthusiastic. Winnfield is turning a 90-year-old former railroad depot into the home of the nation's first museum to Long, the controversial Louisiana governor, U.S. senator and presidential hopeful who was assassinated in 1935 on the marble floor of the modernistic state capitol he built in Baton Rouge.

The museum will house up to 27 hours of videotape about Long, as well as historical documents from the Long family--some of whom still live here, where Huey was born.

Wyatt, one of the founders of the museum, sees a tribute to Long as a town-wide event: Because Long would have been 100 this year, 1993 has been declared the Year of the Kingfish (Long's nickname) in Winnfield. A Long family reunion is slated for this summer, and a symposium for the many writers about Long's life will follow in the fall.

"The interest level has been phenomenal," said Wyatt. "Since word has gotten out, we've had letters or calls from more than 1,500 people who are interested in Huey Long or have read about him and want to see where he came from."

But Long, whose "share the wealth" slogan sounded a militant call to arms in the bleakness of the Great Depression, remains controversial to this day. "I don't see where there is much to celebrate," said Cecil Morgan, a retired dean of Tulane University's school of law who, as a state legislator, once headed an impeachment drive against Long. "Basically, Huey left a legacy of tolerated corruption to this state that we haven't yet recovered from. He was a very bad thing for Louisiana."

Most historians tend to agree.

"I think he was power mad," said Pamela Tyler, a professor of history at North Carolina State University who recently completed a book that is in part a study of the anti-Long movement. "The one thing that he cared about was having and using power. He never for one minute lost sight of that."

Biographer Glen Jeansonne, in his book "Messiah of the Masses," released just last month, is even more damning: "Long's state provided a grim model for what he intended to do nationally. Instead of making Louisiana a 'laboratory for democracy' as Robert M. La Follette did in Wisconsin, he made it a police state," Jeansonne writes. "He destroyed local government and evoked chilling comparisons with Adolph Hitler."

Even for those who detest Long, there can be no denying his triumphs. In a state that resembled the barren outposts of the most impoverished Third World country, Long erected a massive statewide free hospital system, distributed free textbooks for schoolchildren, expanded the state's university facilities, constructed a far-reaching highway network where only horses had dared to tread before and imposed a severance tax on Louisiana's then-giant oil and gas industry to pay for it all.

Because of such achievements, Long still has his fair share of admirers, not the least of whom is the current governor, Democrat Edwin W. Edwards, who has frequently praised Long and his equally colorful brother, Earl, for their contributions to the state.

More than 30 books have been published about Huey and Earl--who served after him as governor. "All the King's Men," a fictional adaptation of Huey Long's life by Robert Penn Warren, also became a movie. Huey Long has been the subject of a Broadway play, a TV documentary and songs and poems.

There is little division about celebrating Long in Winnfield, not only because memorializing the Kingfish will bring obvious economic benefits but also because this part of the state has always reveled in being contrary: As the rest of the South eagerly went off to fight in the Civil War, delegates from surrounding Winn Parish refused to join the Confederacy, helping to form what was later called the Free State of Winn. In the 1800s, Winn was the birthplace to the state's Populist Party, and in 1912, Socialist Eugene V. Debs won 36% of the vote here for President--his highest showing in the South.

With economic depression gripping the surrounding oil and cotton fields, Winn's unemployment level has until recently been in the double digits. Stores have closed and the population has declined.

"This is pretty much the same kind of place it was when Huey Long came out of here," said Wyatt, who successfully spearheaded an effort to have the movie "Blaze," a 1989 film about Earl Long and his romance with New Orleans stripper Blaze Starr, filmed in Winnfield. "I think that's why so many people here identify with him still today. He didn't just come from here, he was a part of here, and that explains a lot about the kind of person he was."

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