You can’t read a newspaper headline about Huey P. Long and not have your curiosity aroused. It happened to me when I saw an obituary in Tuesday’s New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“Huey Long-defying journalist Corbin, 96,” read the headline.
Carl Corbin was a longtime journalist who was expelled from LSU in 1934 while serving as an assistant editor of The Reveille, the university’s newspaper. He and six others defied Long over a letter from a student and paid a heavy price for standing up for press freedom.
Surprisingly, the letter to the newspaper that never mentioned Long’s name and that caused all of the furor, never got into circulation. It was written by a sophomore criticizing then-U.S. Sen. Long for naming Abe Mickal, a star halfback for the LSU Tigers, a “state senator.”
The Associated Press reported, “Mickal subsequently refused to take a seat in the Senate in the recent special session after Long had planned an elaborate mock induction ceremony.”
Jesse H. Cutrer of Kentwood, editor of the Reveille when the letter issue surfaced, was also expelled. He issued an affidavit that caused considerable anxiety for those upset over the letter.
Meeting with Long
Cutrer talked about a meeting he had with Long and others. He said Long said he wasn’t going to stand for any criticism from anybody.
“That letter’s not going to be in that paper tomorrow. I’ll make ’em tear it out and run the damn paper over.”
Long said in the state Senate, “I’ll fire any student who dares to say a word against Huey Long. I’ll fire a thousand,” Long said. “We’ve got 10,000 to take their places. That’s my university. I built it, and I’m not going to stand for any students criticizing Huey Long.”
Cutrer said in his affidavit he had gone to the shop where the Reveille was printed with the offending letter and learned it had been deleted.
Grace Williamson of New Orleans had been editor of the semi-weekly edition of the newspaper and was named editor to replace Cutrer. She told Cutrer that LSU President James M. Smith had directed the letter be removed.
Smith said the writer of the letter was an individual student and his views were not the expressions of a staff member of the Reveille. The president told Williamson he would pay for the cost of the deletion.
Cutrer was summoned to Smith’s office the next morning, and here is what he said about that meeting in his affidavit, according to an Associated Press report:
“He (Smith) stated definitely that he would not do anything that would offend the senator (Long) and jeopardize the ‘good of the university,’ pointing out that he would fire me, my staff, destroy the school of journalism and fire 4,000 students before he would offend the senator.”
By the time the censorship battle had ended, two protesting students had been dismissed (Cutrer and David R. McGuire of New Orleans), five more were indefinitely suspended, including Corbin, and 22 others who had been suspended were reinstated.
The student council supported Smith’s actions. It said in a resolution the statements made by “certain selfacclaimed student leaders” were incorrect and didn’t represent the sentiment of LSU students.
Williamson, the new editor, said Cutrer’s affidavit quoting Smith as saying he would fire 4,000 students rather than offend Long was untrue.
The students who left LSU were vindicated seven years later when they were extended full apologies by the university. The new LSU Board of Supervisors appointed by Gov. Sam H. Jones of Lake Charles called the dismissals “a grave injustice to the students and ordered all mention of the dismissals removed from the university record.”
As their luck would have it, the expelled and dismissed students were invited to attend the University of Missouri Journalism School, one of the most respected in the country. J.Y. Fauntleroy of New Orleans, a member of the new LSU board, helped fund their college costs.
All of the students did well and ended up with good jobs. Corbin became a reporter for the Times-Picayune.
The AP noted that Smith, the president who dismissed the students, was serving 8 to 24 years in the state penitentiary in 1941 in connection with the 1939 political scandals that resulted in the overthrow of the Long regime.
Corbin said of the controversy, “We were defending the right of a student to express himself.”
Later in 1941, Corbin enlisted in the U.S. Army. He went to officer candidate school and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He served with distinction and was promoted to major in 1944.
Corbin subsequently became managing editor of the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi and was an AP correspondent for two years in Jackson, Miss.
His obituary notes he was hired in 1949 by the New Orleans States, the company’s afternoon newspaper, and worked with the Crescent City newspapers until 1965. He resigned then to devote his time to worthwhile causes.
Those of us in the newspaper business today owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Corbin and others like him who have had the courage to defend an individual’s right to free expression. In Corbin’s case, he took on a political tyrant known for crushing his enemies and never wavered in the face of that fierce opposition.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].