Flashback Friday: The courage of post-Governorship Leroy Collins at Selma

Last year, I penned the afterward to Robert Buccellato’s excellent Florida History timepiece, Finding Dan McCarty focusing on the Governorship of Leroy Collins, who took the unfulfilled McCarty mantle and promise, and made Florida a modern state.

I have in the past focused much my analysis on Collins’ views toward improving Florida’s business climate and had long chalked off his courage in opposing hard-edged racism which was prevalent in neighboring states and among the vast majority of Florida legislators as a more conservative pro-business position.

After all conservative businessmen in the south who had a global view wisely realized the image of their home region was prohibitive to integrating fully in the American economy. Collins careful cultivation of growing southeast Florida against populist and pork chopper instincts in the rest of the state allowed him to help change Florida’s image and improve prospects for northern businessmen to invest in the state. Collins was even on the cover of Time Magazine, and had convinced Howard Hughes to invest heavily in developing an aerospace campus in Miami, but that eventually fell through. Identification of who was “liberal” and who was “conservative” by political writers has often focused primarily on the race issue when it came to Florida – but I had long felt Collins instincts weren’t born out of liberalism but practical moderation and his strong sense of right and wrong thanks to religion. Collins’ finest moment as Governor was delivered on May 2, 1957 when he vetoed the legislature’s resolution of “Interposition,” which would have essentially allowed Florida to defy US Supreme Court rulings (and in the future perhaps the Civil Rights Act of 1957 which was passed in a watered-down form and signed by President Eisenhower the midst of the Little Rock crisis )

“This concurrent resolution of ‘Interposition’ crosses the Governor’s desk as a matter of routine. I have no authority to veto it. I take this means however to advise the student of government, who may examine this document in the archives of the state in the years to come, that the Governor of Florida expressed open and vigorous opposition thereto. I feel that the U. S. Supreme Court has improperly usurped powers reserved to the states under the constitution. I have joined in protesting such and in seeking legal means of avoidance. But if this resolution declaring the decisions of the court to be ‘null and void’ is to be taken seriously, it is anarchy and rebellion against the nation which must remain ‘indivisible under God’ if it is to survive. Not only will I not condone ‘interposition’ as so many have sought me to do, I decry it as an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria. If history judges me right this day, I want it known that I did my best to avert this blot. If I am judged wrong, then here in my own handwriting and over my signature is the proof of guilt to support my conviction.” –  – LeRoy Collins, Governor.” May 2, 1957.

But it seems a major part of Collins’ legacy that I had overlooked came after he left the Governor’s office. I had read Martin Dyckman’s seminal work Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins (Florida History and Culture) in 2007, but reread it on my Kindle in the last two weeks and found it fresher and more revealing/timely than when first published. Collins may have been motivated by his conservative pro-business instincts but his sense or right and wrong was unlike so many others in the south at the time.

Following his departure as Governor where he was succeeded by the less moderate Farris Bryant (instead of the more reasonable Doyle Carlton Jr.) and Florida slipped back into a  more aggressive defense of segregation laws and denial of African-American voting rights. Governor Bryant took a leadership role among Southern Governors in trying to hold the line against Civil Rights laws. The below clip is from Bryant’s testimony in front of the US Senate on Civil Rights.

Unlike Bryant a regional and parochial figure, Collins courageous stands made him a commodity on the national level.  The National Association of Broadcasters hired Collins and he and the family relocated to Washington. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as the first Director of the Community Relations Service under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. After Selma, he became Under Secretary of Commerce.

Collins’ was seen by many southerners as a traitor to his region. But you can judge the quality of a man by his enemies – no enemy better than Senator James Eastland (D-Mississippi) the arch-racist (Eastland was more than a segregationist. He genuinely disliked any contact with African-Americans) who lobbied LBJ hard against appointing Collins. Dyckman tells the story:

Collins would never know that he had not been the president’s first or even second choice. James Eastland objected strenuously, however, during a conversation with the president about the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. (It would turn out that the Ku Klux Klan had murdered them, but Eastland dismissed it at the time as a publicity stunt.) Unaware that Johnson taped his telephone calls, Eastland exploded at the mention of Collins’s name: “He’s a damned cheap double-crosser and a liar and he’s strictly dishonest. Now he agreed at the convention to recognize us to vote for you and he went back on his word. I called him a goddamned, lying son of a bitch out there.” “Well, we don’t want him then, do we?” the president replied. “Hell, no!” said Eastland

Collins first real test as Community Relations Service was at Selma. Unfortunately, the 50th Anniversary commemorations of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery March in 2015 didn’t give Collins his due. But he was critical to keeping the peace as best as it could be kept and making things work. He paid an awful political price for it. Again Dyckman:

The march was in its second day. Collins parked his car beside U.S. 80, found King and his associates at the head of the column, and walked with them while they discussed the details. With some apprehension, Collins noted a truckload of photographers taking pictures. The Associated Press photograph, as printed by his hometown newspaper and many others on March 23, showed Collins talking with the Rev. Andrew Young, with Dr. King, Mrs. King, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy walking alongside them (see fig. 10). The caption reported that Collins “joined civil rights demonstrators staging a 54-mile protest march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol at Montgomery.” Though the text identified him as “President Johnson’s representative on racial problems” and said that he walked only “about a mile” with the marchers, the absence of a full explanation made it appear that he had joined them by choice.42 Mary Call had returned to Tallahassee for the expected birth of a grandchild. She warned Collins by telephone of an intensely hostile community reaction to the photograph. Arriving at the Tallahassee airport late that night, Collins found no taxi and called the Grove to ask his wife to pick him up.

Collins never recovered politically. We’ll discuss the 1968 US Senate Primary and General Election in a future Flashback Friday post.

One comment

  1. […] The same day the racial backlash claimed the political career of a great Floridian, Leroy Collins, whose role in Civil Rights disputes in the mid 1960’s had made him toxic in a state whose voters were still largely in favor of segregation. Collins was […]

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