Leander Perez

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Leander Perez
L H Perez 1914 Jambalaya.jpg
Perez in 1914 as Tulane Law School graduate
Personal details
Born (1891-07-16)July 16, 1891
Dalcour, Louisiana
Died March 19, 1969(1969-03-19) (aged 77)
Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana
Nationality American
Political party Democrat
Supported George C. Wallace for U.S. president in 1968
Spouse(s) Agnes Octave Perez
Children Four children, including

Leander H. Perez, Jr.
Chalin O. Perez

Profession District judge, district attorney, and president of the Plaquemines Parish Commission Council
Religion Roman Catholic

Leander Henry Perez, Sr. (July 16, 1891 – March 19, 1969), was the Democratic political boss of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes in southeastern Louisiana during the middle third of the 20th century. Officially, he served as a district judge, later as district attorney, and as president of the Plaquemines Parish Commission Council. He was known for his staunch support of segregation.

Youth education[edit]

Perez was born in the small town of Dalcour, on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish, to Roselius E. "Fice" Perez (died 1939) and the former Gertrude Solis (died 1944). The Perez and Solis families were Isleño American a community descended from settlers from the Canary Islands. He was educated in New Orleans schools, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and the Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. Perez opened a law practice in New Orleans and Plaquemines Parish.

Perez enters Plaquemines Parish politics[edit]

In 1916, Perez was defeated as a candidate for state representative. In 1919, he was appointed judge of the 29th Judicial District to fill an unexpired term. In 1920, he won a full term as judge by defeating a local machine run by his intraparty rival John Dymond. He was elected district attorney in 1924 and became involved in a dispute over trapping lands which ended in a shootout known as the "Trappers' War."

In 1928, Perez allied with Huey Pierce Long, Jr., who was elected governor. In 1929, he successfully defended Long in the latter's impeachment trial before the Louisiana state Senate.

Perez became wealthy by subleasing state mineral lands. In 1940, the state Crime Commission investigated Perez at the request of then Governor Sam Houston Jones. In 1943, Jones sent state troopers to Plaquemines Parish to enforce his appointment of an anti-Perez sheriff. Perez and Jones both came out of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, but whereas Perez had been a Huey Long backer, Jones was staunchly anti-Long.

A political machine on the Gulf of Mexico[edit]

In 1919, Judge Perez launched a reign of bought elections and strict segregation. Laws were enacted on Perez's fiat and were rubber-stamped by the parish governing councils. Elections under Perez's reign were sometimes blatantly falsified, with voting records appearing in alphabetical order and names of national celebrities such as Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, and Herbert Hoover appearing on the rolls. Perez-endorsed candidates often won with 90% or more of the ballots. Those who appeared to vote were intimidated by Perez's enforcers. He sent large tough men into the voting booths to "help" people vote. Many voters were bribed. Perez testified that he bribed voters $2, $5, and $10 to vote his way depending on who they are. Perez took action to suppress African Americans from voting within his domain. Perez said, "Negroes are just not equipped to vote. If the Negroes took over the government, we would have a repetition here of what's going on in the Congo."

Starting in 1936, Perez also diverted millions from government funds through illegal land deals. When he was a district attorney, he was the legal adviser to the Plaquemines levee boards. He used this position to negotiate payoffs between corporations he set up and big oil companies that leased the levee board lands for drilling. After Perez's death, the parish government sued his heirs seeking restitution of $82 million in government funds. In 1987, the lawsuit was settled for $12 million.

Political kingmaker[edit]

In 1948, Perez headed the Thurmond presidential campaign in Louisiana; and after the failure of the Dixiecrat movement, he unsuccessfully tried to keep the party alive, even as Thurmond returned temporarily to the Democratic Party.[1] Earl Long, however, supported Truman, not Thurmond, but Long deferred to Perez regarding the Louisiana tidelands issue. Perez urged Long to reject the Truman administration's proposal which would have greatly enhanced state revenues and to instead seek an even better arrangement before the United States Supreme Court, an argument that proved illusory. The Louisiana Attorney General, Bolivar Edwards Kemp, Jr., and the lieutenant governor, Bill Dodd, had argued that the state should have accepted the Truman administration offer and that not doing so cost billions in lost revenues over ensuing decades.[2]

In 1952, Perez convinced Lucille May Grace, the register of state lands, to question the patriotism of Congressman Thomas Hale Boggs. Grace and Boggs were among ten Democratic gubernatorial candidates that year. She claimed that Boggs had past affiliation with communist-front organizations. The allegations, never proved, worked to sink both of their candidacies. Ultimately, Perez withdrew his backing for "Miss Grace" and threw his primary support to James M. McLemore, an Alexandria auction-barn owner who ran for governor on a strictly segregationist platform.

Over the course of the next two decades, Perez and Boggs would battle again. In 1961, Perez launched an ill-fated campaign to have Boggs recalled as a congressman for his support of a motion to expand the House Judiciary Committee to include new liberal members. There is no provision in the United States Constitution for recall of national lawmakers. The committee enlargement had the support of the new President, John F. Kennedy, and was seen as enhancing the likelihood that civil rights bills could then clear that committee.

In 1965, Boggs, from the floor of the House, announced his support of the Voting Rights Act. Boggs spoke of an "area of Louisiana" where "out of 3,000 Negroes, less than 100 are registered to vote as American citizens." When asked the next day by a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune if he was referring to Plaquemines Parish, the "stronghold of Leander Perez," Boggs replied: "Yes."

In 1956, Perez did not again support James McLemore in the latter's second campaign for governor but instead endorsed Fred Preaus of Farmerville in north Louisiana, the choice of outgoing Governor Robert F. Kennon. Preaus lost his native Union Parish and won only in Perez's Plaquemines Parish in a primary in which Earl Long procured an outright majority in his final comeback bid for governor.

In 1959, Perez supported William M. Rainach for governor in the Democratic primary and then switched his backing to James Houston "Jimmie" Davis in the party runoff, which Davis secured over New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison, Sr., a long-time Perez target.

In the 1960 presidential election, Perez was the state finance chairman and a presidential elector for the Louisiana States' Rights Party. On the ticket with him was future Governor David C. Treen and the flamboyant anticommunist Kent Howard Courtney. Treen left the party, denounced its national organization as "anti-Semitic," and joined the Republican Party in 1962, when he first ran for Congress against Boggs, with Perez's support.

With more than two-thirds of the votes cast, Perez led the States Rights Party electors to victory in 1960 in Plaquemines Parish. The States Rights total in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, however, was barely above the national Democratic total in the parish. The John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson ticket was hence reduced to one-fifth of the ballots in Plaquemines Parish, and Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon drew only 13.8 percent of the total there.

Three Louisiana State University scholars described the impressive third-party vote in Louisiana in 1960 as the outgrowth of "anticlericalism, which expresses itself whenever the [church] hierarchy attempts to go against popular political tendencies. It has led to severe conflicts between clergy and laity over issues of desegregation. Perez has certainly capitalized on these sentiments, and his recent excommunication [from the Catholic Church] has not slowed his activities appreciably. The fact, however, that the church condemns segregation was undoubtedly a decisive factor in Kennedy's [otherwise] success in south Louisiana."[3]

In the 1964 gubernatorial runoff election, Perez worked to nominate John J. McKeithen. In a newspaper advertisement underwritten in part by Perez, the McKeithen campaign criticized McKeithen's opponent, former New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison, for having received the "Negro Bloc Vote" in the December 1963 primary election.[4] After McKeithen defeated Morrison, he then toppled the Republican candidate, Charlton Lyons, of Shreveport. Perez helped to engineer 93 percent of the general election vote in Plaquemines Parish for McKeithen.

Segregationist to the core[edit]

In the 1950s and 1960s, Perez gained attention as a nationally prominent opponent of desegregation, taking a leadership role in the opposition to desegregation, along with nationally recognized figures such as Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ross Barnett of Mississippi. He was a member of the White Citizens Council and an organizer of the white supremacist Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans. Thereafter, Perez wrote and researched much of the legislation sponsored by Louisiana's Joint Legislative Committee on Segregation.

In defending segregation, Perez said: "Do you know what the Negro is? Animal right out of the jungle. Passion. Welfare. Easy life. That's the Negro."

The American Civil Rights Movement, according to Perez, was the work of "all those Jews who were supposed to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau but weren't, and Roosevelt allowed two million of them illegal entry into our country."

Perez controlled the activities of civil rights workers by prohibiting outsiders from entering Plaquemines Parish through his direction of the bayou ferries that were the only way to enter the jurisdiction.

In 1960, while opposing desegregation of local public schools at a New Orleans rally, Perez said: "Don't wait for your daughter to be raped by these Congolese. Don't wait until the burrheads are forced into your schools. Do something about it now." Perez's speech inspired an assault on the school administration building by some two thousand segregationists, who were fought off by police and fire hoses. The mob then went loose in the city, attacking blacks in the streets. When the schools were opened, Perez organized a boycott by white residents, which included threats to whites who allowed their children to attend the desegregated schools. Perez arranged for poor whites to attend without charge a segregated private school, and he helped to establish a whites-only private school in New Orleans.

His legislative ally, E. W. Gravolet of Pointe à la Hache, tried without success to pass grants-in-aid bills to provide state assistance to private schools sprung into existence by desegregation.[5]

Perez and the Catholic Church[edit]

In the spring of 1962, the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced its plan to desegregate the New Orleans parochial school system for the 1962–1963 school year. Perez led a movement to pressure businesses into firing any whites who allowed their children to attend the newly desegregated Catholic schools. Catholics in St. Bernard Parish boycotted one school, which the Archdiocese kept open without students for four months until it was burned. In response, Archbishop Joseph Rummel excommunicated Perez on April 16, 1962. Perez responded by saying the Catholic Church was "being used as a front for clever Jews" and announced with humor that he would form his own church, the "Perezbyterians."

Leander Perez tomb in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans

Perez also described himself at one point as "a Catholic, but not an Archbishop's Catholic."[3] He eventually reconciled with the church before his death after issuing a retraction[6] and received a requiem mass at Holy Name of Jesus Christ Church at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Other political activities[edit]

Perez had once chaired the powerful Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee, in which capacity in 1948 he threatened to deprive senatorial candidate Russell B. Long of the official title of Democratic nominee, thus denying him a place on the Democratic column, the ticket headed with the traditional rooster emblem. Perez toyed with passing the official Democratic mantle to the Republican Senate candidate Clem S. Clarke, a Shreveport oilman. Only a deal with Governor Earl Kemp Long kept Long's nephew, Russell Long, on the regular Democratic ticket in Louisiana. The result was that Russell Long began a 38-year tenure in the U.S. Senate.

In the spring of 1964, with help from McKeithen aide C. H. "Sammy" Downs, a former state senator from Rapides Parish, Perez supported a "free elector" movement to oppose the election of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, then seeking a full term in office. Perez at first pushed for Democratic electors pledged to George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, but he later abandoned that approach and endorsed Republican Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, who had been one of only six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[7]

In the Goldwater campaign, Perez headed "Louisiana Democrats for Goldwater", which carried the backing of an old Perez foe, former Governor Sam Jones. Goldwater also won the backing of W. L. "Jack" Howard, the Democratic mayor of Monroe in north Louisiana. In 1966, Howard, with Perez's support, ran unsuccessfully for the party chairmanship vacated by Sammy Downs, who left the post to support Wallace in 1968.[8]

In 1968, Perez was key organizer of the campaign to place George Wallace as the nominee of the short-lived American Independent Party on the Louisiana general election ballot. He submitted some 150,000 signatures, 50,000 of them from East Baton Rouge Parish, to the office of secretary of state Wade O. Martin, Jr., another Louisiana Democrat who had defected to Goldwater in 1964. A confident Perez declared, "The people of Louisiana have had an acute case of indigestion about what's going on in this country. You've heard it said Wallace is a thorn in the side of the major candidates (Richard Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey). Well, he's a whole cactus."[9]

In the summer of 1968, Perez was questioned about what he and a group of associates had been discussing; he replied: "Richard M. Nixon and other traitors." Though he had supported Goldwater, Perez grew disillusioned with the Republican presidential nominees and flatly drew the line against backing Nixon in 1968. Perez's former ally, David Treen, however, supported Nixon's successful presidential campaign.

On March 19, 1969, Perez died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-seven.[10] His tomb is in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.

Judge Perez Drive, a major thoroughfare in St. Bernard Parish, was named after him until 1999, when officials of that parish decided to distance themselves from Leander Perez's legacy. Judge Perez Drive is now named in honor of the late Melvyn Perez, a long-time judge in St. Bernard Parish.

In the 1970s, several years after Leander Perez's death, St. Bernard Parish was placed in its own judicial district by the Louisiana legislature.

Family[edit]

Perez had ten brothers and sisters. In 1917, Perez married the former Agnes Octave Chalin, to whom he was particularly devoted. They had four children. [1] Their sons, Leander H. Perez, Jr. (1920–1988), followed his father as district attorney in 1960, and Chalin O. Perez (1923–2003) succeeded his father as president of the Plaquemines council in 1967. They were unable to continue their father's stern reign over the two lower river parishes because of their own personal differences, changing political attitudes, and the interference from the FBI. Feuding between the brothers in the late 1970s gave political opponents an opening and the local elections of 1980 saw the first significant decline of Perez family power. The feud was covered by the New Orleans-based journalist Iris Kelso[11] and was also the subject of a 60 Minutes segment on CBS-TV entitled "The Sons of Leander".

In 1996, Perez was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.[12]

Sources[edit]

  • Boulard, Garry, The Big Lie—Hale Boggs, Lucille May Grace and Leander Perez in 1951 (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 2001).
  • Jeansonne, Glen. Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta; Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1977
  • Loewen, James W. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong New York: The New Press, 1999): Chapter 47: "Let Us Now Praise Famous Thieves."
  • http://www.cityofwinnfield.com/museum.html[dead link]
  • "Leander Henry Perez", A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 2 (1988), p. 641
  • The Canary Islanders in Louisiana (Film of Manuel Mora Morales, 2006)

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jeansonne, Glen. Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1977; pp. 185–189.
  2. ^ William J. "Bill" Dodd, Peapatch Politics: The Earl Long Era in Louisiana Politics, Baton Rouge: Claitors Publishing, 1991
  3. ^ a b William C. Havard, Rudolf Heberle, and Perry H. Howard, The Louisiana Elections of 1960, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Studies, 1963, pp. 70-71
  4. ^ Advertisement, Minden Press, January 6. 1964
  5. ^ "Gravolet, E. W.". Louisiana Historical Association, A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography (lahistory.org). Retrieved December 26, 2010. 
  6. ^ Smestad, John Jr. Loyola University, New Orleans. The Role of Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel in the Desegregation of Catholic Schools in New Orleans 1994.
  7. ^ Glen Jeansonne, Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta, pp. 328-331. University Press of Mississippi. Retrieved June 28, 2013. 
  8. ^ "Wallace Backers Lose in Louisiana", Gadsden Times, Gadsden, Alabama, December 17, 1966, p. 1; Biloxi Daily Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi, December 24, 1966, p. 14
  9. ^ "La. Ballot Will List Wallace," Minden Press-Herald, August 9, 1968, p. 1
  10. ^ Associated Press, Obituary: Leander Perez, Political Boss, Integration Foe, reprinted in the Fredericksburg, Virginia Free Lance-Star, page 5 (March 20, 1969). Retrieved on September 3, 2012.
  11. ^ "Iris Turner Kelso: Introduction". beta.wpcf.org. Retrieved October 13, 2013. 
  12. ^ "Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame". cityofwinnfield.com. Retrieved August 22, 2009. 

External links[edit]