Socialist Party finds friends in Piney Woods

By Tammie A. McDaniel
Special to The Journal

ęCopyright 2012 by Louisiana Historical Association;
Used by Permission

Early in the twentieth century, Winnfield was a bustling sawmill town dominated by large lumber companies and railroads. As Populism waned, hill country farmers and workers employed by these companies gravitated toward the Socialist banner. Despite his longstanding affiliation with the Democratic Party, and though wealthy himself, S.J. Harper increasingly sided with their workers. Perhaps it was his sympathy with these workers who often lived in the deplorable, degrading conditions of labor camps that led him to bring Socialist Party presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, to Winnfield in 1912.

Bolstered by support from Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) leader Bill Haywood, whose recent visit to Alexandria had convinced Louisiana's Timber Workers to join his organization, Deb's Socialist rhetoric found a receptive audience in Winn Parish. In that year's elections a Socialist candidate won a school board seat and a police jury seat while the entire slate of Winnfield's city offices was filled with Socialists. Debs himself garnered 5,249 votes in Louisiana in his unsuccessful 1912 race. Remarkably, Louisiana's voters cast a higher percentage of ballots in favor of Debs than did his home state of Indiana.

Clearly, Winn Parish voters were receptive to candidates with radical leanings. Having established himself as an outspoken critic of big business and as a Democrat who believed that the institutions of government should be used to protect and advance the cause of the working poor, Harper made a successful bid for the Louisiana Senate in the spring of 1912.

Soon after his election, Senator Harper and other newly elected officials organized the Good Government League, launching a progressive assault against the powerful, elitist Bourbon Democrats who had controlled Louisiana since the end of Reconstruction. Harper supported free public schools, a minimum wage law, workers compensation, prohibition, and women's suffrage. While his views were popular in Winn Parish, they were sure to draw fire from the entrenched power structure that controlled Baton Rouge. Not one to hide his opinion or to stand firmly in allegiance with one camp, Senator Harper openly campaigned for individual candidates including Monroe's Luther T. Hall, who defeated fellow Good Government candidate, James Aswell, in the 1916 Governor's race. As a sitting congressman, Aswell would possess the power to revisit Harper's opposition to his gubernatorial aspirations on a personal level.

Midway through his term, Senator Harper was approached by Winnfield's Huey Long who asked his old friend for financial assistance so he could pursue a law degree at Tulane University. Huey's brother, Julius had agreed to provide his younger sibling with a monthly stipend, but Huey wanted more. Harper gave him $250. When questioned by his daughter about this action, Harper responded that Long was a brilliant mind and needed help. He further mused that he would be able to count on Huey if he ever needed a good lawyer

Harper's radical and often eccentric views manifested themselves as early as 1890, when he began clipping articles from the nation's major newspapers. Many of the later articles expressed opposition to America's entry into World War I on the basis that the war would simply bring financial gain to the wealthiest of Americans, a view held by radicals throughout America. Senator Harper wrote and sent telegrams to the congressional delegation detailing his views. In addition, he penned letters to the editors or various newspapers, similar to this one dated March 12, 1915, to the editor of the Winnfield Times:
"The war now going on in Europe was brought about for no other purpose than to place a heavier financial burden on the people . . . Every possible influence is engineered or concocted to hoodwink the people . . . anyone who does not condemn war is either ignorant of material facts or is influenced by some selfish motive."

Or this undated letter to the New Orleans Item:
"There is an all-wise Creator, but to think that such a Creator would be a party to a murderous conflict, in which the very choicfest of our young men must be used as cannon fodder, and then trheir fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and all futgure posterity made financial slaves to such a damnable system is to absurd to contemplate, much less assert publicly. We should stay out of the conflict except as peacemakers . . . "

At some point during 1914, Senator Harper began carefully arranging the articles into an old ledger book where he indexed them. Such documentation of his political philosophy would eventually contribute to the serious troubles the solon encountered.

Harper's central Louisiana neighbors continued to reflect the working class, rural values that had been so prevalent in the region for no less than three decades. Not surprisingly then, they returned him to the State Senate in 1916.

Next: Winnfield's new young attorney, Huey Long, urges Senator Harper to sponsor passage of worker's compensation laws in the Legislature.