Perez in 1914 as Tulane Law School graduate
July 16, 1891|
|Died||March 19, 1969
Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana
Supported George C. Wallace for U.S. president in 1968
|Spouse(s)||Agnes Octave Perez|
Four children, including
|Profession||District judge, district attorney, and president of the Plaquemines Parish Commission Council|
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 enforcing and preserving segregation.
Early life and education
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, an ethnic community descended from settlers from the Canary Islands. Perez 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 in Plaquemines Parish.
In 1916, Perez was defeated as a candidate from Plaquemines Parish 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 the candidate of a local political machine run by his intra-party rival John Dymond. Perez was elected district attorney in 1924 and became involved in a dispute over trapping lands; this ended in a shootout known as the "Trappers' War." He served as district attorney until 1960, never earning more than $7,000 a year.
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 parish 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.
In 1919, Judge Perez launched a reign of bought elections and strictly enforced 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, but most were already disenfranchised due to the state constitution passed at the turn of the century, which added requirements for payment of poll taxes and passing literacy tests in order to register to vote. Subjective and discriminatory treatment by white registrars prevented most blacks from registering.
Illegal oil deals
Starting in 1936, Perez 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 the big oil companies that leased the levee board lands for drilling. "As early as 1941, Perez’s ties to companies involved in lucrative mineral leases were under investigation. In 1983, it was discovered that $80 million in oil royalties had been paid to Delta Development Co., which Perez secretly owned." 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.
In 1948, Perez headed the Strom Thurmond presidential campaign in Louisiana, when the candidate headed the Dixiecrat movement. Perez unsuccessfully tried to keep that party alive, even as Thurmond returned temporarily to the Democratic Party. Earl Long supported Harry Truman for president, not Thurmond, but he deferred to Perez regarding the Louisiana tidelands issue. After oil was discovered under state leases in the tidelands of navigable waters of coastal states, the federal government became involved, claiming control of tidelands and their resources for national defense. Through many years, there were "three Supreme Court decisions against the states, three acts of Congress in favor of the states, two presidential vetoes against the states, and a major issue in a presidential campaign, before the states finally won the victory."
In the case of Louisiana in 1948, Perez urged Long to reject the Truman administration's proposal of payment for these areas, which would have greatly enhanced state revenues. Perez wanted to seek a better arrangement by taking the conflict over jurisdiction before the United States Supreme Court, but Louisiana lost its case. The Louisiana Attorney General, Bolivar Edwards Kemp, Jr., and the lieutenant governor, Bill Dodd, later said that the state should have accepted the Truman administration offer and that not doing so cost billions in lost revenues over ensuing decades.
In another display of power, 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, resulted in sinking both the 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 strong 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 was supported by the new Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, and it was expected to enhance the likelihood that civil rights bills could 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 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 the primary; Earl Long won an outright majority in his final comeback bid for governor.
In 1959, Perez supported William M. Rainach for governor in the Democratic primary; in the party runoff, he switched his backing to Jimmie Davis. The latter won 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 anti-communist Kent Howard Courtney. Treen left the party, denouncing its national organization as "anti-Semitic." He joined the Republican Party in 1962, among the first conservative white Southerners to do so, and ran for Congress with Perez's support against Boggs.
With more than two-thirds of the votes cast, Perez led the States Rights Party electors to victory in 1960 in Plaquemines Parish. The John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson ticket received only one-fifth of the ballots in Plaquemines Parish. Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon, never a serious contender, drew 13.8 percent of the total there. The States Rights total in neighboring St. Bernard Parish ran not much ahead of the national Democratic total in the parish.
Three Louisiana State University scholars described the strong 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 success in south Louisiana." Outside of Plaquemines Parish, in the predominantly Catholic and Democratic region of south Louisiana, the Irish Catholic Kennedy did well.
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 said that his opponent, former Mayor deLesseps "Chep" Morrison, had received the "Negro Bloc Vote" in the December 1963 primary election. (African Americans were still largely disenfranchised in Louisiana, but people were always willing to play on fears of their political domination in majority-black areas.) After McKeithen defeated Morrison, he easily prevailed over the Republican candidate, Charlton Lyons, of Shreveport. Perez helped to engineer 93 percent of the general election vote in Plaquemines Parish for McKeithen.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Perez gained attention as a nationally prominent opponent of desegregation, taking a leadership role in the southern Massive Resistance to change, particularly following the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Other nationally recognized figures who became known on this topic were Strom Thurmond, George Wallace (future governor of Alabama), and Ross Barnett of Mississippi. Perez was a member of the White Citizens Council and an organizer of the white supremacist Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans. Perez researched and wrote much of the legislation sponsored by Louisiana's Joint Legislative Committee on Segregation. Perez tried to control the activities of civil rights workers by prohibiting outsiders from entering Plaquemines Parish via the bayou ferries, which were the chief way to cross rivers and enter the jurisdiction.
In 1960, while opposing desegregation of New Orleans public schools, Perez spoke provocatively at a rally in the city. His speech is credited with catalyzing a mob assault on the school administration building by some 2,000 white men, who were fought off by police using fire hoses. The mob ran through the city and attacked African Americans on the streets. When the schools were reopened, Perez organized a boycott by white residents. His group made threats to whites who allowed their children to attend desegregated schools. Perez arranged for poor whites to attend a segregated private school without charge, and he helped to establish a new whites-only private school in New Orleans. The Roman Catholic Church supported desegregation, and integrated its parochial schools. The bishop of New Orleans excommunicated Perez for his overt opposition to the church's teachings.
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 that were founded to avoid desegregation, known as segregation academies.
Civil rights activists tried to work through the barriers to register African-American voters and enable them to vote. In the summer of 1963, from July through August, activists of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) came to Plaquemines Parish to run a voter registration drive for African Americans. About 45 members, both black and white, came to work in the parish and organize local people for voter registration classes, peaceful marches, and drives to register. In a short time, 300 CORE activists and local people were arrested for peaceful protest, but CORE leaders negotiated with the local sheriff and mayor to permit some actions. After training and concerted action, a number of local African Americans did succeed in registering to vote, although many were still prevented, on largely specious grounds for failing to answer questions about the state constitution. The movement also worked to get Seymourville and another small community included within the city boundaries; the city was trying to exclude these majority-black communities from being incorporated in order to prevent black votes from being counted for election of the city commission. Voting rights work took place in other nearby parishes as well; in October an African-American man was the first of his race to register to vote in West Feliciana Parish since the early years following disenfranchisement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized federal oversight and enforcement of voter registration and elections in jurisdictions with historic under-representation of elements of the population. Expanded voter registration drives took place and, after 1965, African Americans in Louisiana began to participate again in the political system and exercise their constitutional rights.
Perez and the Catholic Church
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; it was burned down in what was suspected as arson. In response, Archbishop Joseph Rummel excommunicated Perez and two other opponents of integration on April 16, 1962.
Perez described himself at one point as "a Catholic, but not an Archbishop's Catholic." He eventually reconciled with the church and was readmitted before his death after issuing a retraction. Perez received a requiem mass at Holy Name of Jesus Christ Church at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Other political activities
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. Such a move would have denied Long a place on the Democratic column, the ticket headed with the traditional rooster emblem, which was automatically supported by the tens of thousands of white Louisiana voters at the time. The Democratic Party had the only competitive races. Perez toyed with passing the official Democratic mantle to the Republican senatorial nominee, 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 representative and 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. He later abandoned that approach and endorsed Republican Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, one of the six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the Goldwater campaign, Perez headed the group "Louisiana Democrats for Goldwater", which was backed by 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.
In 1968, Perez was the key organizer of the campaign to place George Wallace on the Louisiana general election ballot as the nominee of the short-lived American Independent Party. 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."
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. But, Perez's former ally, David Treen, supported Nixon's successful presidential campaign against Humphrey and Wallace.
Marriage and family
In 1917, Perez married Agnes Octave Chalin, to whom he was devoted. They had four children, including two sons.
The Perez sons followed their father into politics: Leander H. Perez, Jr. (1920–1988), was elected as district attorney in 1960, and Chalin O. Perez (1923–2003) succeeded his father as president of the Plaquemines Parish Council in 1967. They did not wield the same power as had their father, in part due to their own personal differences but also because of changing political attitudes, increased voting by African Americans who often preferred other candidates, and the interference from the FBI.
Feuding between the brothers in the late 1970s gave political opponents an opening. The local elections of 1980 were evidence of the first significant decline of Perez family power. The feud was covered by national newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, numerous television and print reporters in the greater New Orleans area, including WWL, WDSU; the daily newspapers States-Item and Times Picayune (both owned by the same company); and the Guide Newspaper Chain. Reporters who covered the event who are still living in the area include Iris Kelso of New Orleans and Melvin J. Burmaster, Esq. The feud was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment on CBS-TV entitled The Sons of Leander, and a documentary by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Koler titled The Ends of the Earth: Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, 1982.
Legacy and honors
- 1970, Judge Perez Drive, a major thoroughfare in St. Bernard Parish, was named after him (it was formerly Goodchildren Drive). In 1999 officials of that parish decided to distance themselves from Leander Perez's legacy. They re-dedicated the road 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, the Louisiana legislature had designated St. Bernard Parish as its own judicial district, and Melvyn Perez served there.
- In 1996, Perez was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.
- 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."
- Louisiana Hall of Fame, City of Winnfield
- "Leander Henry Perez", A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 2 (1988), p. 641
- The Canary Islanders in Louisiana (Film of Manuel Mora Morales, 2006)
- "1920: Leander Perez's rise to power in St. Bernard, Plaquemines", The Times Picayune, 24 October 2011, accessed 11 March 2015
- Jeansonne, Glen. Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1977; pp. 185–189.
- Price Daniel, "TIDELANDS CONTROVERSY" Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 11, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association
- William J. "Bill" Dodd, Peapatch Politics: The Earl Long Era in Louisiana Politics, Baton Rouge: Claitors Publishing, 1991
- William C. Havard, Rudolf Heberle, and Perry H. Howard, The Louisiana Elections of 1960, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Studies, 1963, pp. 70-71
- Advertisement, Minden Press, January 6. 1964
- "Gravolet, E. W.". Louisiana Historical Association, A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography (lahistory.org). Retrieved December 26, 2010.
- Louisiana Diary, 16 March 1964, Written, directed and narrated by Richard O. Moore, aired on PBS
- Smestad, John Jr. Loyola University, New Orleans. The Role of Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel in the Desegregation of Catholic Schools in New Orleans 1994.
- Tom Aswell (August 11, 2010). "Earl's big blunder (no thanks to Leander Perez)". Retrieved February 10, 2015.
- Glen Jeansonne, Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta, pp. 328-331. University Press of Mississippi. Retrieved June 28, 2013.
- "Wallace Backers Lose in Louisiana", Gadsden Times, Gadsden, Alabama, December 17, 1966, p. 1; Biloxi Daily Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi, December 24, 1966, p. 14
- "La. Ballot Will List Wallace," Minden Press-Herald, August 9, 1968, p. 1
- Associated Press, Obituary: Leander Perez, Political Boss, Integration Foe, reprinted in the Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia), page 5 (March 20, 1969). Retrieved on September 3, 2012.
- "Iris Turner Kelso: Introduction". beta.wpcf.org. Retrieved October 13, 2013.
- "Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame". cityofwinnfield.com. Archived from the original on July 3, 2009. Retrieved August 22, 2009.