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Echo: Robert Floyd Kennon Part 2

In last week’s Echo of our Past, we looked at the early political career of Minden’s Robert Floyd Kennon, taking him through his unsuccessful bids for both Governor and U.S. Senator in 1948. After losing the election for Senate to Russell Long, Kennon resumed his post as Justice of the Second Circuit Court of Appeal and began laying plans for the next governor’s election in 1952.
It was widely assumed that spurred by his strong showing in the Senate race, Kennon would be among the front-runners for Governor. At least one member of the Long political family related the story that even the Long machine believed and indirectly supported that effort. No documented proof of this story has been found, or perhaps will ever be found. This was the story told to me by a former Congressional staffer for Congressman Leonard Allen, my uncle, the late Emerson Agan. The very close Senate election, as nearly all races involving narrow victories for a Long in Louisiana, seemed likely to face investigation. Fearing Kennon would request an investigation, Governor Earl Long made a request, which might be termed a deal, with Kennon. In exchange for Kennon agreeing not to challenge the election and allowing Earl’s nephew Russell to take office unchallenged, Earl promised not to support a truly viable candidate for governor in 1952. I do believe that my Uncle believed the story to be true. But I have my own doubts as to the complete accuracy, although I do believe there is “something” there. The eventual Long candidate in 1952 did prove to provide less of a challenge than expected; but, at the time of the 1948 Senate election, Earl had plans to run for governor himself in 1952. He hoped to abolish the proscription in Louisiana law of a governor succeeding himself in office, and in fact made such an effort in 1950. Whatever the merits of this story, it does point out that even in 1948, Kennon was considered among the front-runners for the Governor’s race. When I related my Uncle’s story to the late Morgan Peoples, the outstanding Louisiana historian and beloved professor at Louisiana Tech, he had just completed his work on a biography of Earl Long. Professor People’s indicated that he had heard similar stories, but could never nail down strong enough evidence to include the story in the biography.
As filing opened for governor in 1952, several strong candidates emerged in the field. In June 1951, Bob Kennon announced his intentions to seek the state’s highest office. He planned to take an unpaid leave of absence from his post as judge and base his campaign on providing honesty and efficiency in government and to run the state in a business-like manner. The other leading candidates for governor in 1952 were Congressman Hale Boggs of New Orleans, Lieutenant Governor William J. Dodd, former State Registrar of Lands Lucille May Grace, the Hadacol Man, State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc, businessman James McLemore of Alexandria, and the Long candidate, Judge Carlos Spaht of Baton Rouge. The story I mentioned earlier has been given some credence over the years, because Spaht seemed to be an atypical Long candidate, a lesser star in the political spectrum than several other candidates. However, the most likely reason for his selection was a split inside the Long organization caused by Earl’s attempt to gain the right to run for a third term. Two of the strongest candidates, Boggs and Grace, branched off into a private war, fueled by Grace’s leading backer, Judge Leander Perez, the boss of Plaquemines Parish. Grace attacked Boggs as a Communist or Communist sympathizer and the fallout from that argument destroyed the chances of both of those formidable candidates.
When the ballots were counted in the first Democratic primary on January 15, 1952, the race proved that the electorate was well divided. Spaht ran first with 23%, Kennon came in second with 21%, in third place was Boggs with 19%, and McLemore finished fourth with 15%. Kennon had received a majority of the vote in one parish and a plurality in 16 others. Together, the totals of Spaht and Kennon totaled less than 50% of the vote so the majority of primary voters would have to support their second choice in the runoff. Kennon set out to become the second choice of most of the voters. He received the endorsement of each of the losing candidates in the first primary. In addition, he adopted C.E. Barham, who had previously been Boggs’ running mate as the Kennon candidate for Lieutenant Governor. The tide was clearly in favor of Kennon and in fact, several major newspapers asked Spaht to withdraw, saying he had no chance to win, and asking him to save the state money by avoiding an unnecessary election.
Spaht ran a spirited race, but the outcome was never in doubt. In the runoff held on February 19, Kennon was swept into office with a majority vote in 53 of the state’s 64 parishes. In percentage terms, he won a landslide vote of 61% to 39%. Even though winning the Democratic Primary in those days of one-party politics in Louisiana meant an assured election. Kennon did face a Republican challenger in the General Election on April 22, 1952. In that race, the Republican candidate only earned 10% of the limited turnout, sweeping Kennon officially into office with 90% of the votes. The Judge from Minden would get his chance to bring good government to Louisiana.
Excitement in Minden was high as Kennon was sworn in as Governor on May 15, 1952. Many local residents traveled to the event and the Honor Guard from the local National Guard unit that Kennon had founded took part in the ceremonies. Much attention was paid in the papers to Kennon’s father, Floyd Kennon who entertained the reporters with his personality. Key roles in the Kennon Administration were awarded to Minden residents as we gained a new-found prominence in state politics. Larkin Greer of Minden served as Kennon’s Commissioner of Administration, Kennon’s old law partner, Graydon K. Kitchens, Sr., served as Chairman of the Louisiana Tax Commission and Kennon’s brother-in-law, Dr. C.S. Sentell, became head of the Confederate Memorial Hospital in Shreveport.
Once in office, Kennon followed through with his promises to reform government. Historian Michael Kurtz has described his tenure in office as “Civics Book Government”. Instituting reform in Louisiana politics did not come without challenges. From the outset, Lieutenant Governor C.C. Barham, who had been “borrowed” from the Boggs ticket, became a leading critic of Kennon’s governing style. Leveling charges of corruption and mismanagement. Still Kennon was able to make some significant changes such as returning Civil Service to Louisiana government after it had been abolished by Earl Long and introducing electronic voting machines to a state traditionally rocked by allegations of voter fraud. Probably the most publicized activities of the Kennon years were the raids on illegal gambling and liquor operations conducted by the State Police under the direction of Kennon’s commandant of State Police, Colonel Francis Grevemberg. Gambling spots across South Louisiana were closed en masse and the raids on illegal liquor sales touched Kennon’s hometown. On a Saturday in November 1954, the day of the traditional LSU versus Arkansas football game in Shreveport, a State Police raid here in Minden resulted in the arrest of several local residents on charges of bootlegging, including the Mayor of Minden.
Kennon also instituted reforms at the State Prison at Angola. Perhaps the most difficult issue he faced as governor was the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which struck down segregation in schools. Kennon became a fighter in the movement against integration and a leader among those who identified themselves in support of States Rights in the United States. After he left office, Kennon remained a leader in this movement throughout the years of the Civil Rights Era. Kennon saw the passage of the state’s first, “Right to Work” law, although it was later repealed.
By the time Kennon left office in 1956, he left the largest surplus in the state’s treasury in our history. But, in what became a Louisiana tradition, the voters were tired of reform. Kennon was barred by law from seeking reelection in 1956, but in that race former Governor Earl Long, in disfavor four years earlier, won an unprecedented majority in the first Democratic Primary and was swept back into office.
Kennon returned to private law practice in Baton Rouge, after his time in office and did not return to Minden as a permanent home again. He remained active in politics, and as the Civil Rights movement reached its peak, became a leading figure in the Louisiana resistance to the Federal government’s efforts. With that resistance a major part of his platform, he ran for governor once again in 1963. However, his campaign that year never really caught fire and was given a drastic set back by an unexpected turn of events. Kennon’s campaign made a major ad buy in the newspapers of Louisiana. The full-page ads were to attack the actions of President John F. Kennedy. These sharply critical ads were scheduled to begin running on a Saturday, Saturday November 23, 1963. Of course the ads could not be pulled from the newspapers that also carried the news of President Kennedy’s assassination on that same date. Whether or not Kennon had a real chance of victory before the ads is not clear, but after the ill-timed attacks, his campaign began to lose strength. Kennon ran fourth in the Democratic Primary in January 1964, behind runoff participants John McKeithen and Delesseps Morrison and Congressman Gillis Long.
Kennon continued active in legal practice in Baton Rouge for many years after that last defeat. However, by the early 1980s his health was failing. He became a resident of a retirement home in Baton Rouge, where he died on January 11, 1988 at age 85. He was buried in a Sentell family plot in Youngsville, Louisiana.
So we have no tangible reminders of perhaps our most distinguished public servant here in Minden. There is no gravestone, as he isn’t buried in our area. We do have three residences associated with Bob Kennon. The home of his parents on Lewisville Road, the first family home of his own family on Jefferson Street and the newer home Kennon built for his family on Pennsylvania Avenue. There can be little doubt that Robert Floyd Kennon played a significant role in the life of our town and our state. Perhaps it is time we make his memory more than an Echo of Our Past and remember him locally in some concrete manner.