The James Baldwin documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," reviewed by Southern Bookman Tuesday, opens with film of Leander Perez Sr., one of the most notorious and colorful political villains in Louisiana history.
The film shows Perez delivering a speech against integration, which he saw as communist-backed. As a Louisiana native and student of the state's strange political history, I was familiar with Perez's career, but I don't remember ever before seeing him in action on film.
The boss of petroleum-rich Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes south of New Orleans, Perez was a staunch segregationist whose local militia in a 20th century echo of the Civil War fought a pitched battle against a National Guard unit seeking to enforce integration.
Appointed a district court judge early in his career, the LSU and Tulane Law School graduate gained absolute power as district attorney of the two parishes, and later as head of the Plaquemines Parish Commission.
Perez ruled local elections through intimidation, bribery and fraudulent voting rolls that featured names like Babe Ruth and Herbert Hoover. He first gained fame as the attorney who successfully defended then Gov. Huey P. Long against the state Legislature's impeachment efforts.
A supporter of Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat party in the late 1940s, Perez also sought to influence state elections. He feuded with liberal New Orleans congressman Hale Boggs, backing a candidate in one election who accused Boggs of communist sympathies.
Perez also enriched himself by gaining control over mineral leases awarded by oil companies to parish levee boards. The oil companies' digging of canals throughout the parish brought the dire legacy of massive loss of coastline to the encroaching Gulf of Mexico. Each year, Louisiana loses huge portions of its land.
One of the best books on Louisiana politics, James Conway's "Judge: The Life and Times of Leander Perez," covers his mean-spirited and rapacious career. Perez died in 1969s, his coastal kingdom largely isolated from the outside world.
The Judge's sons, Leander Jr. and Chalin, inherited their father's political power and wealth. Chalin headed the Plaquemines Commission, while Leader Jr. served as St. Bernard and Plaquemines district attorney. A bitter falling out between the brothers led to the loss of their political power in the early 1980s and a $12 million settlement with Plaquemines over Leander Sr.'s stealing of oil lease money, estimated to have reached millions more.
Before Perez Sr.'s rise, the two parishes suffered horrible devastation from the 1927 Mississippi River flood when New Orleans leaders decided to blow up the levees south of the city. While New Orleans escaped major damage, the released surge of water caused deaths and massive property loss in the two low-lying parishes. Their suspicion of New Orleans has lasted for generations.
Although "I Am Not Your Negro" shows Perez Sr., he had no connection with Baldwin. The film references the Perez clip as an extreme example of the white supremacist views that Baldwin eloquently spoke against. Alas, that virulent racism still thrives.