In 1968, Alabama’s Democratic former Governor George Wallace who had become a national figure with his “stand in the schoolhouse door” ran for President on the ticket of the “American Independent Party.” The candidacy despite coded words like “crime,” “law breakers,” and “patriotism” was about one thing- race. Wallace had been a populist earlier in his career and had in fact been considered a liberal on race in Alabama. But after losing the 1958 Democratic Primary for Governor he vowed to never be beaten on the issue again.
As Governor of Alabama, Wallace became the leading national opponent of President Johnson’s Civil Rights program connecting with the public in a way the old Senate dinosaurs who fought to protect the “southern way of life” through dilatory legislative tactics had failed.
Wallace obviously should have had some cross-border appeal but his showing in Florida was deeply disturbing. Wallace won the majority of Florida counties and despite Richard Nixon’s victory in the state, he needed to run up big vote totals in urban centers, most importantly St Petersburg, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale to carry the state.
Democratic nominee, liberal Hubert Humphrey carried Dade County, the most populated county in the southeast at the time by a very wide margin but otherwise only carried sparsely populated Monroe (the Keys) and college dominated Alachua, both by small margins. Still the big numbers in Dade were enough to give Humphrey more statewide votes than Wallace who had won 34 Florida counties, including every county north of Gainesville both to the east and west as well as Dixie oriented counties of Okeechobee, Glades, Hardee, DeSoto, Polk and Sumter in the state’s interior. At the time Dade has close to 1/4 of Florida’s voters, and Miami was at the time more like a northeastern city than a Southern or Midwestern one.
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 defeated by Ed Gurney for US Senate, giving the state its first Republican Senator since the carpetbagger governments of the Reconstruction era. Collins had been a mild segregationist as Governor (every elected Florida Democrat at the time was a segregationist- it was a requirement to win the Democratic nomination for any office in the state) but had resisted attempts by the legislature to shut down Florida’s public schools rather than admitting black students and had been instrumental in trying to negotiate a settlement at Selma in 1965. Pictures of Collins with the recently murdered Martin Luther King Jr, circulated across the state leading to Gurney gaining an estimated half of the registered Democrats voting for him.
Gurney was a reactionary conservative from Brevard County (which became Republican during the space program boom of the early 1960s) and would later go onto great infamy with personal scandal and his pathetic defense of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate Scandal.
Collins efforts to make Florida a modern state were used against him by Gurney and the Republicans. The son of a Tallahassee grocer who was a moderate Governor from 1954 to 1960, he was beat badly in rural areas by a Maine-born, Harvard-educated carpetbagger. Half of the state’s Democrats mostly native southerners voted for a carpetbagger Republican in direct repudiation of the “solid south” principle that had dominated elections among white voters throughout Florida since Reconstruction. The irony of ironies in an election where George Wallace carried 29% of the statewide vote carrying every county north of Gainesville, and in all of those counties Gurney won, becoming the first Republican ever to carry many of them for any office. Richard Nixon won Florida, just as he had in 1960, but this time the combined Wallace/Nixon (conservative) vote was close to 70% of Florida’s electorate. In 1968, registered Democrats still represented the vast majority of voters in the state (69% to 23% with the rest being unaffiliated). While the Republican “horseshoe” was beginning to develop from rapidly growing Southwest Florida through I-4 and then back down the East Coast to Broward County, the most striking takeaway from the election was the number of Democrats in North Florida who abandoned the son of a Tallahassee grocer for a Maine Carpetbagger thanks to the issue of race.
Collins won (Miami) Dade by a nearly 2 to 1 margin and as noted above that was then nearly 1/4 of the state’s vote. But in the rest of the state, the former Governor whose legend would only grow in future years was beaten badly, carrying just Alachua, Monroe and (barely) Hillsborough counties. He even lost his home county of Leon. Collins great sins were as follows:
- He had actively tried to reapportion the legislature in the 1950’s when he was Governor away from the Pork Chop Gang and towards a more equatable distribution of seats.
- Instead of rabble-rousing like Governors of Mississippi and Alabama would do about race, he steered a moderate course as Governor. One that defended segregation in the most genteel of ways.
- He had worked hard to improve public works projects in urban areas where the state was looking to attract business from the north.
- Selma: As the head of the Community Relations Service under President Lyndon Johnson he had played a critical role in diffusing the tensions and allowing the march to continue.
Before Collins faced Gurney in the General Election he was almost beaten for the Democratic nomination by Attorney General Earl Faircloth. A Miamian, Faircloth had ties to liberal former US-Senator and then-US Congressman Claude Pepper, but his campaign emulated the tactics of George Smathers who held the seat and was retiring from the US Senate. In fact Smathers, a close friend of Richard Nixon (who introduced Nixon to Key Biscayne real estate) reconsidered his retirement to try and stop Collins from being elected. While Faircloth wasn’t as overt in his attacks on Collins as Smathers and his allies had been against Pepper in 1950, Faircloth was still race-baiting and in Collins faced a candidate whose psychology was different than the fighting Pepper.
But in the end conservative Democrats got behind Faircloth whose pandering to conservative interests and race baiting went along with the times. Collins from the beginning new he was up against it as even some old friends abandoned him because of his racial liberalism. Collins tried to placate primary voters running to the middle and still found himself unsatisfactory to conservative and reactionary interests in a state which dominated much of the Democratic Party. Collins in the runoff began pushing left again and in the General, perhaps liberated by knowing he would lose ran one of the most uplifting and liberal campaigns on social issues we’ve seen from a statewide candidate. Still in a state where Democrats hadn’t lost a US Senate race in nearly a hundred years, Collins lost by double-digits as noted above.
Collins was one of the greatest Floridians of the 20th Century. His leadership contributed mightily to Florida not falling into the trap of the five Deep South states(Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina) states who at various times had such demagogic leadership about race that northern businesses stayed far away from those states. In the 1970’s, when Florida emerged as a leading progressive light in the Sun Belt and a “Golden Age” of politics emerged, it was thanks in large part of the vision and courage Collins had exhibited in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Collins electoral career ended in 1968, but his contributions to the state continue to this day.
Thankfully, just two years later, in 1970 the racial backlash would end and Florida would elect statewide for the first time two of the greatest men to ever hold public office in the state- Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles. The 1970’s would be the apex of political enlightenment in the state of Florida. Leroy Collins as much as any man had a role in making that happen.
Ed Gurney for his part ended up becoming a disgrace to the state and one of many single-term statewide elected officeholders. No Republican in Florida was reelected in a statewide election until 1994 – Gurney worked with Governor Claude Kirk to oppose William Cramer’s candidacy in 1970 for US Senate creating an irrevocable split within Florida’s minority party. Then Gurney was indicted in 1974 for influence peddling just months after he had been Richard Nixon’s only staunch defender on the Senate Watergate Committee – while the other Republicans on the Ervin panel had tried to be objective and eventually tilted against the President Gurney was Nixon’s leading man in the Senate. Gurney did not seek reelection and was eventually acquitted on all charges.