My last two columns have outlined the political struggles between Minden Judge Harmon C. Drew and Governor and then Senator Huey P. Long. At the conclusion of last week’s article we had already seen Long and Drew clash on two different occasions and Drew emerge as the recognized leader among the Anti-Longs in Louisiana. Today’s column continues the story and will use the words of the Minden Herald and T. Harry Williams from his biography Huey Long to recount the story of the “showdown” of November 9, 1933, along with a few additional comments of my own.
By the summer of 1933, with the formation of the New Deal Democratic Association, first in Webster Parish then statewide, Harmon Drew was involved on a statewide speaking tour pointing out the damage being done to Louisiana by the Long organization. Interestingly, particularly considering what was about to take place, newspaper accounts of the speeches indicate that Drew seldom, if ever, called the Senator out by name. Usually employing phrases such as the “powers that be” or the administration. Another side note, the Judge’s granddaughter, Katie Carey Sims, has told me that Mrs. Lucile Drew (whose name I misspelled in a previous column), drove the Judge around to all his speaking engagements.
In the fall of 1933, Huey made one of his return trips to Louisiana, to direct the actions of the Louisiana Legislature, a development that stomps all over separation of powers and state independence, but was Huey’s style of governance. Long was promoting the passage of legislation to restructure the tax code and to limit the presence of “chain stores” such as Jitney Jungle and Piggly Wiggly in Louisiana, which Huey asserted were destroying local businesses. At the same time, Drew was traveling across the state making address attacking the abuses of patronage and the simple violation of sound principles of government going on under the Long regime. Most notably the fact that a United States Senator was dictating the actions of Louisiana government through his puppet Governor O. K. Allen. It was natural that their paths would cross and as it turned out that crossing would occur in Minden.
On Tuesday, November 7, Judge Drew spoke at the organizational meeting of the Ouachita Parish New Deal Democratic Association in Monroe, making his usual points about the damage Huey Long was doing to Louisiana government. The next night, Long came to Monroe for a raucous meeting promoting his legislative program. Two prominent Monroe city leaders were thrown out of the rally by Long’s bodyguards, and late in the rally, the Senator turned his attention to Judge Drew. He attacked Drew over the allegation that Drew was refusing to pay back money owed to the Reconstruction Finance Company and putting that burden on taxpayers. Drew had been a director of the Bank of Minden which had failed in April 1933, owing money to the RFC. The bank was in the processes of being reorganized and would open in January 1934 as the Minden Bank and Trust. In the interim, payments to the RFC had been suspended, it was not a legal matter, but Long portrayed it that way, and became very personal in his attacks on Drew. The stage was set for a confrontation, as Huey was scheduled to speak in Minden the next night, November 9, and Judge Drew issued a public challenge to Long to repeat the charges to Drew’s face at the Minden rally.
At this point, I will let contemporary sources relate what happened that Thursday night. What follows is the Minden Herald’s account of the events that was published in the edition of Friday, November 10, 1933.
“To apparent majority anti-Long crowd, according to the applause, United States Senator Huey P. Long delivered one of the mildest and most peaceful addresses here even known last night in the City Park. The Senator and his group left Minden immediately after the meeting.
“Trouble was almost aroused when bodyguards of the Senator attempted to block the path of Judge Harmon C. Drew of Minden, member of the Circuit Court of Appeals and president of the Louisiana New Deal organization, when he stepped to the platform to answer the charges which Senator Long had made against him at previous Long meetings.
“Being informed of the charges made against him by Long at other meetings, Judge Drew stood close to the platform where the Senator was speaking, waiting for one false remark against him and the New Deal organization. He waited in vain.
“The disturbance came immediately at the close of Senator Long’s remarks, which were addressed, to a large audience gathered in the open air. The Senator’s discussion was along the line of his previous addresses dealing with tax relief and more taxes and the distribution of wealth.
“Throughout the meeting, a dozen or more of Long’s bodyguards and henchmen stood on the stairs leading to the speaker’s platform. Occasionally several of them circulated through the audience and loitered near Judge Drew, who appeared impatient as Long continued his address without repeating the charges against him.
“When Long ended his address, Judge Drew moved over toward the stairs leading to the stand. Immediately three of the Long bodyguards pressed close about the jurist, holding him back. In the meantime the large crowd or spectators shouted, “Let Judge Drew take the platform and give us the truth.”
“By this time Senator Long and other members of his special army of guards had left the speaker’s stand and the three men, who apparently had been detailed to hold Judge Drew back, retreated before friends of the Judge, who were aroused by the treatment which had been accorded him.
“The bodyguards involved in the incident slipped away in the crowd which gathered around the stairway to see what the excitement was about. Judge Drew mounted the stairs.
“’Last night in Monroe,” he told his hearers, “this man Long spoke and uttered a most malicious lie about me. I came here tonight to hear him repeat the lie in my presence. And he didn’t have the nerve to do it.’
“Although many in the audience which heard Long’s speech had left, unaware of the Judge Drew incident, more than a hundred heard the jurist’s remarks and applause came from most of them. One person on the fringe of the crowd booed the judge and attempted to interrupt his remarks but disappeared when friends of the judge moved in that direction.
“Judge Drew later thanked those who had supported him in his attempt to place his reply to Long’s charges before the meeting.
“’I think the time has come when the public-spirited citizens of Louisiana must act to stop that man when he goes about the state attacking honest people,” he declared. “I for one do not intend to tolerate it any longer.’
“The charge which Judge Drew denounced as a ‘malicious lie’ related to a debt which he owed the Bank of Minden.
Several salary warrants were credited to the bank, and later to the RFC, and Long alleged at Monroe that Judge Drew had stopped payment on the warrants after agreeing to repay the loan on a monthly basis, had paid $600 and then failed to pay more.
“Senator Long’s address, the only speech at the meeting, was confined almost entirely to a presentation of his tax program and a defense of his record as a Senator.”
Reading Long’s speech from the Herald’s account, he made only one veiled comment that could have been interpreted as a jibe at Drew and the New Deal organization. He opened his speech by saying:
“ . . . it is rather cool weather here this evening. It is certainly unfortunate that this town has not yet built a Courthouse here or any public building around town and we are consequently holding this meeting down here.”
The point he was making was that the Roosevelt Administration’s boycott of projects in Louisiana had not brought new construction to Minden and Webster Parish, and Huey was withholding state funds because of Minden’s reputation as a hotbed of anti-Long sentiment. Thus indirectly blaming Drew for not getting from Roosevelt what the city might have gotten had they backed Huey.
Here is T. Harry Williams’ account of that night and the events leading up to the speech. Williams, according to his footnotes drew his information from Rupert Peyton, A. M. Wallace, E. P. Roy, Louis A. Jones, Murphy Roden, Theophile Landry and the Baton Rouge State-Times.
“At Monroe and other towns, Huey attacked in virulent personal terms an anti leader from Minden in Webster Parish in the northwest, Harmon Drew. He promised that he would repeat his words when he spoke in Minden, even if Drew was present. His threat enraged Drew and his friends in Webster Parish and also other anti leaders in neighboring parishes, who decided that the time had come to close the mouth of this demagogue who attacked gentlemen. They resolved to stop Huey from making his speech against Drew – no matter what method they had to use. One of them recalled the emotion-charged conference: ‘At the time there were men all over the state who believed that Huey had to be killed, that to kill him would be a moral act. The word went out for armed men to come to Minden that night. A score or more from Webster and other parishes came. This was the plan. Drew was to take a seat in the front row. If Huey attacked him, Drew would reply. If the guards made for Drew, all hell was to break loose. Each man in the plot had a guard to shoot, and several were assigned to shoot Huey.’
“One of the plotters, however, had qualms: too many people were likely to be killed. He revealed the plan to a friend of Huey’s, who passed the word on to Colonel E. P. Roy, head of the state police and in charge of the security arrangements for Huey during the stump tour. Roy received the news just as Huey was preparing to drive to Minden to speak. Getting into the car with the senator, Roy explained the plot. He begged Huey to cancel the meeting and go on to Shreveport. Huey insisted that he was going to talk, and talk about Drew. But Roy persisted, stressing that a number of people would lose their lives if Huey stuck to his purpose. Huey finally agreed to a compromise: he would speak at Minden but he would not mention Drew.
“The meeting at Minden was scheduled in the courthouse square and the space was packed with people when Huey and his party, most of them state policeman and bodyguards, arrived. In front of the speaker’s platform stood men with revolvers or pistols clearly bulging in their coats, Drew’s supporters. As Huey mounted the platform, Drew himself appeared and paced back and forth menacingly. Louie Jones, back in his hometown, went up to Drew and said: ‘If you put a foot on the platform, I’ll kill you.’ Other guards stationed themselves before the platform and shifting their guns on their hips looked meaningfully at the Drew adherents. ‘We had everybody covered,’ Murphy Roden recalled.
“Huey spoke briefly, without mentioning Drew, and then, escorted by policemen, went to his car and drove to Shreveport. The moment he left the platform, Drew ascended it and spoke to those of crowd that remained. He boasted that Huey had not had the nerve to denounce him to his face. It was an ungracious remark. Huey had shown physical courage in speaking before armed men who were looking for an excuse to kill him. And he had demonstrated some moral courage – he had been willing to curb his remarks to save lives.”
Now, I tend to cast a more favorable eye on Huey Long than many students of Louisiana history. But I am not persuaded of the validity of this account. One charge that was leveled at Williams years after the book was published was that he shaded events in Huey’s favor. I don’t think that is true either. I think that Long and most of his bodyguards sincerely believed there was such a plot; however, while it was probably discussed, I don’t think anyone locally had any plans to carry out such a shooting at a public meeting in a park with women and children present. Huey had become extremely paranoid, perhaps with good reason, by this point and I’m sure he saw guns and plots where none existed.
A few years ago, Drew descendants Drew White, the late Richard Carey and Judge R. Harmon Drew present a program on the Drew family to the Dorcheat Historical Association. Judge R. Harmon Drew related the version of the story he learned through the family and family friends who were present that night. As the Judge phrased it the “Drew version” of this tale is vastly different. It confirms that Huey met a hostile audience but instead of a mob bent on violence, the unfriendly audience was largely composed of members of the Minden and Shreveport bar who came to support and defend their fellow attorney from what they saw as slander from the mouth of the Senator.
So, that concludes my account of the showdown between Harmon Drew and Huey Long, some of the more intriguing Echoes of our Past.
Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.