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'Huey Long chap' captivates Mellon prof

April 11, 2000

Judith Zwolak

He may liken grits to congealed wallpaper, but Tony Badger, Tulane's Spring 2000 Andrew W. Mellon Professor, has a taste for Southern politics. Badger, a professor of American history at Cambridge University in England and author of numerous books and articles on the American South, takes on Louisiana politics in an April 27 lecture that caps off his semester-long stay at Tulane.

The talk, entitled "'When I Took the Oath of Office, I Took No Vow of Poverty': Race, Corruption and Democracy in Louisiana, 1928-2000," will explore the cyclical nature of Louisiana's governance in the last century, where corrupt machine-type politics of Govs. Huey Long and Edwin Edwards rotate with the so-called reformers such as Gov. Mike Foster.

"The argument for the Longs--both Earl and Huey--and Edwin Edwards is that they were not in power because they were corrupt; they offered a much-needed service to low-income voters," Badger says. "Corruption was simply something that went with Louisiana politics. Also, they were moderate on the race issue."

Their opponents, often calling themselves reformers, were actually economic conservatives, he says. "They were often equally as corrupt as well as staunch segregationists. In the 1970s and '80s, they were reinvented as the Republican Party and remained on the conservative side of race relations."

This pattern of politics has cost Louisiana, Badger says. "It's left the state unable to benefit as other Southern states have," he says. "It's made it difficult for the state to develop the sort of infrastructure and climate for quality education and economic growth that other states have. It's also left the state with a lily-white Republican Party."

Badger's insights on Louisiana politics come after decades of studying and teaching American Southern history in England. His interest in this country's politics began in 1959 at age 12, when he encountered the story of Huey Long's assassination in a book in his father's library.

At that time, reading about a political figure's murder was both horrifying and intriguing. His studies as a college student at Cambridge in the 1960s rekindled his interest.

"When I was an undergraduate and began reading about the New Deal, who should appear but this Huey Long chap?" he says. The story of the Kingfish started Badger on a road of scholarship that led to three books on Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal reforms, as well as research and publications on civil rights, Martin Luther King and segregation.

A graduate of Cambridge University with a doctorate in American Studies from Hull University in England, Badger taught at Newcastle University from 1971 to 1991. In 1992, he became Cambridge's Paul Mellon Professor of American History. When he arrived at Cambridge, Badger created a new course on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

"The class drew massive numbers of students," he says. "The university was a bit surprised. They thought students would rather study 13th-century French charters."

The popularity of the course may reflect the interest of British scholars in slavery and race relations in this country, Badger says, adding that Adam Fairclough, a British professor at the University of East Anglia, wrote the definitive text on civil rights in Louisiana, Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972.

"The civil rights movement has always interested people in Britain," he says. "And the British have an interest in the South perhaps because it's seen as different."

Badger certainly thought the South was different on his first trip to Raleigh, N.C., on Labor Day 1969. Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, he checked into his hotel and scoured the nearly deserted city for an open restaurant.

"I found a run-down Chinese restaurant and then made the mistake of asking for a beer," he says. Root beer was the best the restaurant could do on that Sunday afternoon two decades ago. Coupled with his first taste of grits the next morning, Badger's initial experience with Southern cuisine left him cold. "That was my first and last plate of grits and my first and last root beer," he says.

New Orleans food, however, suits him well, he says, as does his relationship with Tulane and its history department. With Sylvia Frey, professor of history, Badger and other British scholars have formed the Tulane-Cambridge Atlantic World Studies Group, which brings together American and British scholars who study race relations and slavery. The group has held two conferences so far and plans a third conference next April at Tulane focusing on the civil rights movement and black liberation in the Americas.

During his stay at Tulane as a visiting professor this semester, Badger is teaching a course on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States. Teaching a course similar to the one he taught at Cambridge, Badger says he has noted little difference between the two sets of students in their knowledge about the movement. "In some ways, the civil rights movement is as far removed from American students now as it is to British students," he says.

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