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Leander Perez

Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta

Glen Jeansonne
Copyright Date: 2006
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    Leander Perez
    Book Description:

    Leander Perez 1891-1969) was more than simply another Neanderthal segregationist. He was a political boss who held absolute power in Plaquemines Parish to an extent unsurpassed by any parish leader in Louisiana's history.Leander Perez: Boss of the Deltais his full history.

    A bit of a social reformer, a political figure of national stature, an oil tycoon worth millions of dollars, Perez was known to one and all, including himself, as the Judge, although the office he held for most of his career was that of district attorney. He got his political start in the early 1920s, when Huey Long was beginning to attract statewide attention. But, even after Long was gunned down in 1935, the Judge continued to dominate life in the lower delta for thirty-four years, until he died from a heart attack in 1969. Above all, Perez relished power, and the essence of his might lay in his skill as a backroom broker and in his personal friendships with such idologues as J. Strom Thurmond, Ross Barnett, Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus, and George Wallace. his grip on the parish was partly economic and partly political, and it was enforced by an iron will stronger than the will of any other man in the lower delta.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-637-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments for the Second Edition
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Glen Jeansonne
  4. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Preface to the Original Edition
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. Prologue
    (pp. xxi-xxvi)

    “Do you know what the Negro is? Animals right out of the jungle. Passion. Welfare. Easy life. That’s the Negro. And if you don’t know that, you’re naive.’”¹ The speaker was Leander H. Perez, a fiery segregationist who did not believe in sugarcoating his words. He traced the movement to desegregate schools and public facilities “back to 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.”²

    Leander Perez was more than simply another Neanderthal segregationist. He was a political boss who...

  7. ONE Coming of Age
    (pp. 1-15)

    Plaquemines Parish is the end of the line—a narrow, fertile peninsula more than a hundred miles long, stretching out into the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It is a land built gradually over the eons by the silt-laden Mississippi River as it empties into the open sea. A hot, muggy, swampy region, it has been called nature’s compromise: half land, half water. Along either bank of the river lie, protected by earthen levees, two extremely narrow ribbons of high land where the majority of the delta’s folk live and work. Not far from the river, in places...

  8. TWO The Judge
    (pp. 16-31)

    Perez took office despite the opposition of nearly every public official in the Twenty-ninth Judicial District. For over thirty years a tightly knit political machine composed of most of the parish officials and allied with the New Orleans Ring, or Old Regulars, had controlled Plaquemines. These politicians considered Perez a brash upstart and a pest. The ruling triumvirate of Plaquemines comprised, besides Dymond, Simon Leopold, a state senator, and Frank Mevers, a former sheriff. St. Bernard was dominated by District Attorney Nemours H. Nunez and Sheriff Albert Estopinal, Jr. The interests of the two parishes were inextricably intertwined. The district...

  9. THREE The Trappers’ War
    (pp. 32-61)

    By the mid-1920s, Judge Perez had become the undisputed political boss of Plaquemines. But power demands a financial as well as a political base, and the Judge began work early on his. There were several avenues an enterprising resident of the delta could follow to wealth. Gambling and bootlegging were both major industries of the day, but by far the most promising—and legitimate—was fur trapping. The lower delta was teeming with fur-bearing animals, primarily muskrat, but also mink, otter, and raccoon. Although trapping is normally associated with a cold climate, during the twenties Louisiana produced more furs than...

  10. FOUR The Judge and the Kingfish
    (pp. 62-73)

    The 1930s were relatively quiet in Plaquemines Parish after the spectacular bootlegging and trapping wars of the twenties. Local politics became overshadowed by Huey Long’s flamboyant state machine and the national depression, and Perez’s domination of Plaquemines met only token resistance. It was said that, before official police jury meetings, the jurors would meet informally with the Judge, who would tell them what he wanted done; they then would convene formally and rubber-stamp the resolutions dictated by Perez. “There’s hardly ever a dissenting vote,” Leander explained. “We work together 100 per cent.”¹

    In 1924 Perez had met a rising young...

  11. FIVE Small Stealing Is an Outrage
    (pp. 74-84)

    With the Long machine monopolizing Louisiana’s political spotlight during the early 1930s and Perez’s local machine grinding out electoral victories without serious opposition, the time was ripe for an enterprising politician to make money. After switching from judge to district attorney, Perez leaped into a frenzied and lucrative legal practice and also became involved in the oil, sulphur, banking, cattle, and real estate businesses. The machinery that poured wealth into his coffers was largely set up during the friendly state administrations from the late twenties to the late thirties. Thereafter, royalties and earnings from investments continued to increase his income....

  12. SIX Burying the Hatchet, Perez Style
    (pp. 85-100)

    By early 1940 Perez was engaged in the hottest local political duel since his battle with John Dymond twenty years earlier. In May, 1939, the tension between the Plaquemines district attorney and the district judge J. Claude Meraux erupted into an open break. When a levee board position became vacant, Leander and Meraux supported rival claimants for the appointment. Meraux, who had accompanied his favorite to the board meeting to be sworn in and taken an active part in the proceedings, resigned a week later as head of the St. Bernard Democratic Organization. Thomas W. Serpas, the police jury president...

  13. SEVEN The Carrot and the Stick
    (pp. 101-120)

    Machiavelli, the philosopher of pragmatic politics, wrote that it is more advantageous to be feared than loved. Leander Perez recognized that fear was a more reliable way of holding allegiance, but he also craved love; thus there were two components in his particular brand of bossism—the carrot and the stick, a blend of threats and benefits.

    The Judge’s autocratic domination of his native parish prompted one Louisianian to characterize Plaquemines as the only unconstitutional monarchy in the United States. Political scientist V. O. Key termed Plaquemines an “autonomous principality.” Perez himself liked to tell newsmen that the parish was...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. EIGHT The Little War of 1943
    (pp. 121-141)

    Perez’s squabbles in the early 1940s with Claude Meraux and Dutch Rowley occurred at a most inopportune time. He already had his hands full fighting an anti-Long reform administration led by Governor Sam Jones.

    Even after the assassination in 1935 of Huey Long, the Longite faction had kept its power, endorsing a ticket headed by Richard Leche in the 1935 gubernatorial primary. Leche, with Earl Long as lieutenant governor, won the election but resigned in 1939 after wholesale corruption was discovered in his administration. Eventually, more than 250 indictments resulted from the misappropriations that had bilked the state of an...

  16. NINE Politics as Usual
    (pp. 142-163)

    Judge Perez believed that he faced a crucial test in the Democratic gubernatorial primaries of 1944. A vigorous anti-Long (and thereby anti-Perez) successor to Sam Jones, determined to pursue Jones’s efforts, might end Perez’s personal domination of the lower delta. Unfortunately for him, the Long faction was internally riven by the ambitions of many competing politicians. By May, 1943, Jimmie Noe, Earl Long, and Ernest Clements, a state senator who styled himself the only true disciple of Huey, had announced their candidacies for governor. New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri, now the dominant boss in the Long organization, vetoed Earl’s candidacy...

  17. TEN Saving the Country
    (pp. 164-196)

    Leander had been the political kingpin of Plaquemines and St. Bernard for nearly twenty years before becoming active in national politics, but when he finally joined the fray he did so in typical Perez fashion—engaging in a total war admitting of no compromise and no surrender. The Judge never lacked political enemies; for the first half of his career they were men like John Dymond, Dutch Rowley, Claude Meraux, and J. Ben Meyer. In the 1940s he added President Harry S. Truman, the United Nations, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the “international Communist conspiracy.” Against these latter more formidable...

  18. ELEVEN Earl Long and the Third Party
    (pp. 197-217)

    In 1956 Perez unhappily found himself with a contentious sheriff in St. Bernard and a bellicose governor in Baton Rouge. The governor was Earl Long, who had been elected in a sweeping first primary victory—the first in Louisiana since 1936. He and Perez had been at odds since about 1950, when Leander had sabotaged Earl’s plans for a constitutional convention. The Judge, who had broken with Long over state patronage, insisted that the break stemmed from Earl’s refusal to submit his proposed new charter to a statewide referendum. Long claimed that he feared a “Plaquemines count.” Judge Perez retorted,...

  19. TWELVE Segregation Forever
    (pp. 218-252)

    At the peak of his power in the mid-1950s, Judge Perez had the prosperous appearance of a successful business executive. He had wavy, iron gray hair and appraising blue eyes, set off by bushy brows and rimless spectacles. In 1956, at the age of sixty-five, he was five feet, nine inches tall and weighed 188 pounds. His strongly set jaw and quick reflexes hinted that beneath his dignified demeanor bubbled volcanic energy.¹

    The Judge, in these later years, dressed like a character in a Tennessee Williams play. As a youth he had always dressed neatly and immaculately. But his idea...

  20. THIRTEEN The Second Battle of New Orleans
    (pp. 253-270)

    The prolonged court battle to desegregate the New Orleans public schools began in 1952 when a Negro plaintiff filed the case ofBushv.Orleans Parish School Board. The school board fought a tedious and costly court battle to maintain a separate system of schools, advised by some of the leading segregationists in the state, including Leander Perez. The battery of attorneys, who developed ingenious arguments, at one point claimed that the plaintiffs had not proved that they were in fact Negroes. In 1956 the federal district judge, J. Skelly Wright, enjoined the school board from operating a segregated school...

  21. FOURTEEN Leander’s Last Stand
    (pp. 271-309)

    In 1959 Leander Perez boasted to the New Orleans Citizens’ Council, “I’ll be damned if they ever integrate Plaquemines Parish. If they come to Plaquemines, we will deputize every able body [sic] person in the Parish if necessary.” But the federals pressed on. Three years later, after New Orleans had ungracefully yielded to court-ordered integration of its public schools, the Judge was no less adamant in defense of his segregated fiefdom. He threw down the challenge: “They won’t have as easy a time integrating Plaquemines Parish as they have had in other places.”¹ It was a rare Perez understatement.


  22. FIFTEEN Saving the Country Again
    (pp. 310-345)

    In recent times Louisiana has had difficulty finding a niche in presidential elections. In the seven elections between 1948 and 1972, its electoral votes went to the Republicans three times (1956, 1964, 1972), the Democrats twice (1952, 1960), and to third parties twice (States’ Rights, 1948; American Independent, 1968). Perez avidly supported Eisenhower in 1952 but quickly became disenchanted with him after he took office. The Judge had assumed that Ike was a doctrinaire conservative, when in fact the general had no clearly formed political philosophy at all; he had even had trouble deciding which party to join. When Eisenhower...

  23. SIXTEEN The Judge Retires
    (pp. 346-370)

    Despite his political activities, Leander Perez always found time for his family. The Perezes were closely knit in the Old World tradition. He and his wife Agnes, to whom he was married for half a century, were nearly inseparable. Agnes, who had her own boots and gun, often accompanied her husband on hunting trips, and she always went with him to Baton Rouge when the legislature was in session. The Judge was not a great music lover; he said that classical music was pretty but that he did not understand it. His favorite song was “Asleep in the Deep,” by...

  24. Epilogue
    (pp. 371-384)

    A former sulphur executive who had worked for many years in the lower delta once commented, “Perez, in his own mind, is the greatest citizen since George Washington, maybe even greater.Hedidn’t chop down any cherry tree.”¹

    This attitude was not confined to the Judge himself; both his partisans and enemies were equally opinionated. He was loved and hated with equal fervor, and his own feelings were likewise intense. During his long life he demonstrated a profound capacity for tenderness and kindness, especially toward his own family—and an unlimited ability to hate. There is no inherent contradiction between...

  25. Afterword “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”
    (pp. 385-402)

    Reflecting upon the career of Leander Perez eight years after Perez’s death, F. Edward Hébert, who had known him for more than 45 years, paraphrased Marc Antony’s description of the martyred Brutus, declaring, “Here was the noblest Roman of them all.””¹ The political and financial empire that Perez bequeathed to Lea and Chalin appeared as impregnable as Rome. Yet like Rome, the Judge’s empire was corrupt, vulnerable to dissension, dissipation, and invasion. In time, his sons would squander their inheritance, Perez rule would end, and even the Judge would be vilified.

    The decay was not evident when in 1974 Petrovich,...

  26. Essay on Additional Sources
    (pp. 403-404)
  27. Notes
    (pp. 405-444)
  28. Bibliography
    (pp. 445-454)
  29. Index
    (pp. 455-460)