Former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu tells the story of how the Superdome was built in downtown New Orleans. He was a member of the New Orleans committee working on it, and had been a political foe of Gov. John McKeithen, the backer of the project.
The projected cost of the Dome was too high to provide the number of seats that the NFL wanted for a major league team for the facility. Somebody had to tell the governor the bad news about reducing the number of seats or needing more money from the Legislature. Because the others figured Landrieu had little to lose in terms of gubernatorial favor, he was picked to call the governor.
Landrieu outlined the problem. After a moment’s silence, McKeithen’s trademark north Louisiana drawl replied: “You load the wagon. I’ll take care of the mules.”
However McKeithen flogged the mules, they pulled the wagon and invested in the seats that the NFL wanted. McKeithen’s Folly, as it was sometimes called at the time, remains today an iconic symbol of the Crescent City and Louisiana.
That story came to mind as the Manship School News Service reported on the FBI files from the days of the civil rights movement. McKeithen’s dramatic tenure into 1972 included not only the civil rights era but investigations into state government links with organized crime in New Orleans, tarnishing at the time the legacy of the first two-term governor in the modern era.
The civil rights story showed the same kind of ruthless pragmatism that pulled the wagons for the Superdome and other projects in the state. As Louisiana’s governor in the mid-1960s, McKeithen appears to have been behind payments to Ku Klux Klan leaders that were meant to suppress the racial violence swirling through Louisiana at the time.
The FBI records are hearsay, in the sense that agents were told about the payments and some Klan leaders at least believed that the state would pay them if they kept a lid on violence then wracking the South.
The agents were led to believe the driving force behind that strategy was the newly minted governor who received campaign support from some Klan leaders, support that steadily eroded after McKeithen took office because of his rapidly evolving policy of racial toleration and civil rights.
Some cash or checks appear to have been given through the Louisiana State Sovereignty Commission, which was created by the Legislature to keep state control of civil rights issues. The money was privately raised and used to corrupt the bad guys, to the point that the agents were told that Klan leaders were criticized by their followers for their relative moderation.
If it is all true, it’s a case of McKeithen’s use of a carrot for the mules, not a stick.
Gus Weill, who as a 30-year-old was a key aide to McKeithen, says that while he had no firsthand knowledge of those north Louisiana payments, they nevertheless would have “made sense.”
“John was completely practical. He wanted Louisiana to endure without the violence that Alabama and Mississippi were experiencing at the time,” Weill said.
McKeithen was in later years proud of his embrace of civil rights.
That also was practical: As shrewd a politician as they come, he saw the handwriting on the wall as President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights laws made the black community a much larger voting bloc than in the old days of Jim Crow. McKeithen may also have been interested in his own potential as a vice presidential nominee for the national party; if that seems an unrealistic ambition in hindsight, the notion that such a skilled politician would not think it is naive.
Retrospective moral judgments are tricky. Any grimy payoffs to Grand Kleagles give insight into the times. McKeithen was practical, in Weill’s word, and if he saw the future coming with black voting rights, as a politician he had to handle the present with care.
In days when payoffs for politically influential people were a way of indirectly buying votes in an election, particularly as hard-fought as in 1963, the same system would have seemed eminently practical dealing with the explosive problem of civil rights.
It was another way, McKeithen was taking care of the mules.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.