Jimmie Davis was the first governor I ever met. And was I impressed! It was 1959 when dad asked me to attend a rally across the street from Johnny Darby’s Bar in Arnaudville that I first met him. At the time there were two political factions in the state. One was either with or against the Long faction, and the people in the area seemed to be with the pro-Longs. Not many people were expected to attend the gathering for Davis, but a medium sized crowd showed up. I suspect that many went to get a free sandwich and beer.
Prior to my attendance I would hear the Long faction supporters tell us, “Why should we vote for Davis, he did nothing while he was governor the first time.” Davis had previously served a term as governor from 1944 through 1948. He was first elected governor by defeating Lewis Morgan who had been backed by former Governor Earl Long and New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri.
It is true that during his first term in office he spent much of his time in Hollywood and few new programs besides the establishment of the State Retirement System were introduced in Louisiana. He did however leave office with Louisiana having a healthy $100 million surplus.
I still remember his speech very well. He started by discussing his “do-nothing” first term as governor. To summarize his speech, “Many voters are complaining because I did so little during my first term, but let me remind you that when I was governor there was a world war going on. We needed to save money to help our troops to victory. Everyone needed to sacrifice and spend less, including the government.” By the time his speech was over everyone was screaming, “Let’s vote for someone who did nothing as governor.”
Davis told the gathering about his early years. The family was so poor that he did not have a bed in which to sleep until he was at least nine years old. “Jimmie” Houston Davis was born in 1899. His first wife was Alverna Adams, daughter of a prominent Shreveport family. He graduated from Beech Springs High School and Soule Business College. After graduation, Davis taught history for a year during the late 1920s. After his first wife died, he married Anna Carter Godron, a member of the Chuck Wagon Gang gospel singers from Nashville.
In the 1959 election, Davis defeated segregationist William Rainach, Lt. Governor Bill Dodd, former Governor James Noe, and New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison. Davis ran second to “Chep” Morrison, an anti-Long candidate, in the primary, but then defeated Morrison in the party run-off held in January 1960. In an unusual political move, Davis got the support of Earl Long, his previously bitter political enemy. Long did so because he had a personal hatred for Morrison. Davis defeated Republican Francis Grevemberg in the general election.
Among accomplishments during his second term as governor was the building of the famous Sunshine Bridge to Nowhere as called by his political enemies. In hindsight the bridge is largely responsible for the growth of industry on both sides of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. He is also remembered for riding his horse up the capitol steps as a stunt in support of segregation, something for which he later apologized.
Davis delivered his speeches with the religious passion of Elmer Gentry, as played by actor Burt Lancaster in the movie. What a great inspirational speaker and leader Jimmie Davis was!
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