In a region famous for its flamboyant politicians, Earl Kemp Long, or “Uncle Earl,” as he was popularly known, was one of the most flamboyant of them all. He was a raspy-voiced stump orator who in his speeches employed anecdotes, name-calling, and quotations from the Bible with equal facility. He was a rustic master of Louisiana politics who was suspected of consorting with known criminals and yet compiled one of the greatest records of reform for Louisiana’s poor in this century. Frequently referring to himself as “the last of the red hot poppas,” he correctly predicted that after him all politicians would have to learn to use the medium of television in campaigning. Fro his days on the campaign trail with his brother Huey through the course of his own remarkable career, Earl Long came to epitomize the character of the powerful southern demagogue.
Michael L. Kurtz and Morgan D. Peoples, both longtime students of Louisiana politics, have written the first full-scale biography of Earl Long. Based on mor than two decades of extensive research in a variety of sources, their book chronicles the life and times of this consummate politician from his early years on the family farm near Winnfield, Louisiana, to his death in 1960, at the age of sixty-five.
Kurtz and Peoples present a thorough account of Earl’s role in the rise to power of his brother Huey, and they gave a frank, unvarnished description of the no-hold-barred political tactics Earl advocated. The authors who how Earl dedicated his own career to improving the lives of Louisiana’s masses, and they emphasize how in his unorthodox way he became on the state’s most progressive and effective governors. At the risk of his own political success, Earl was an early champion of civil rights, a fact the authors claim has generally been ignored.
Kurtz and Peoples present new information from recently declassified FBI files concerning Earl’s ties with organized crime figures, who gave him substantial sums of money to keep their illegal gambling operations flourishing. They also offer the first comprehensive account of Earl’s highly publicized stays in mental institutions in 1959, including an interpretation of the psychiatric and physical causes of his “breakdown,” and provide factual information about Earl’s notorious relationship with the stripper Blaze Starr.
Exploring Earl Long’s controversial life-style and his strong family ties, his raw humor and his political savvy, his abuse of power and his accomplishments in the areas of civil rights and public services, this important biography fills a serious gap in the history of modern Louisiana politics.
Morgan D. Peoples is retired professor of history at Louisiana Tech University.
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