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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.

Contents

Youth 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). 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

In 1916, Perez was defeated as a candidate for state representative. In 1919, he was appointed judge of the 25th 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. This situation was more than a bit odd, as Long found the racial rabble-rousing, for which Perez would later be famous, distracting, and since Perez later became a fierce critic from the right of the Long family.

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. The two later joined forces to support Republican Barry M. Goldwater for president in 1964. Perez headed "Democrats for Goldwater" in Louisiana.

A political machine on the Gulf of Mexico

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 percent or more of the ballots. Those who did appear 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.

Militant defense of segregation

In 1948, Perez headed the Thurmond presidential campaign in Louisiana; and after the failure of the Dixiecrat movement, he unsuccessfully strove for several years to keep the party alive.[1] In 1952, he convinced Lucille May Grace, the register of state lands, to question the patriotism of Congressman Thomas Hale Boggs, Sr. "Miss 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.

In 1960, Perez led the States Rights Party electors to victory in Plaquemines Parish, with more than two-thirds of the votes cast. The States Rights total in St. Bernard Parish,however was barely above the national Democratic total. The John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson ticket was hence reduced to one-fifth of the ballots in Plaquemines Parish, where Richard M. Nixon drew only 13.8 percent of the total. Three Louisiana State University scholars described the impressive third-party vote 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."[2]

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 move to expand the House Judiciary Committee, a move that had the approval of the new President John F. Kennedy and was seen as enhancing civil rights bills considered by that committee. In 1965, Boggs, from the floor of the House, announced his support of the Voting Rights Act. In so doing, he 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 Times-Picayune if he was referring to Plaquemines Parish, the "stronghold of Leander Perez," Boggs replied: "Yes."

In the 1950s and 1960s, Perez became 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. 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. He supported Rainach for governor in the 1959 Democratic primary and then switched his backing to James Houston "Jimmie" Davis in the party runoff, which Davis won over New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison, Sr.

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 2 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 2,000 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 a segregated private school for free and helped found a whites-only private school in New Orleans.

In the 1960 presidential election, Perez was the state finance chairman and a presidential elector for a third-party, 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.

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 until it was burned down. 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 that he would form his own church, the "Perezbyterians."

Perez also described himself at one point as "a Catholic, but not an Archbishop's Catholic."[2] He eventually reconciled with the church before his death and received a requiem mass at Holy Name of Jesus Christ Church at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is interred at his home in Plaquemines Parish. [3]

Later political activities

Perez had once chaired the powerful Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee, in which capacity 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 his last campaign, Perez supported Wallace's American Independent Party. When asked in the summer of 1968 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 supporting Nixon in 1968. Perez's former ally Treen, however, supported Nixon's successful presidential campaign.

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.

It should also be noted that in the 1970s, several years after Leander Perez's death, St. Bernard Parish was placed in its own judicial district by the Louisiana legislature.

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Family

Perez had ten brothers and sisters. In 1917, Perez married the former Agnes Chalin. They had two sons, Leander H. Perez, Jr. (1920–1988), who followed his father as district attorney in 1960, and Chalin O. Perez (1923–2003), who 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 and because of 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.

In 1996, Perez was posthumously inducted into the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.[4]

Sources

  • Boulard, Garry, "The Big Lie—Hale Boggs, Lucille May Grace and Leader Perez in 1951" (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2001).
  • Jeansonne, Glen. Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta; Jackson, MS: 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
  • "Leander Henry Perez", A Dictionary of Louisiana Biography, Vol. 2 (1988), p. 641
  • "The Canary Islanders in Louisiana" (Film of Manuel Mora Morales, 2006)
  • FBI FOIA file

References

  1. ^ Jeansonne, Glen. Leander Perez: Boss of the Delta Jackson, MS:University Press of Mississippi, 1977; pp. 185–189.
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Smestad, John Jr. Loyola University, New Orleans. The Role of Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel in the Desegregation of Catholic Schools in New Orleans. 1994.
  4. ^ "”Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame”". cityofwinnfield.com. http://www.cityofwinnfield.com/museum.html. Retrieved August 22, 2009. 

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