50th Anniversary of MLK Jr. Death: Leroy Collins, Selma and 1968

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. 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 the state’s Democrats mostly native southerners voted for a carpetbagger Republican. 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).

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 Hillsborough counties. 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.

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 )(George, 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.

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