On this holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, we also take some time to remember Leroy Collins
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a time that we celebrate the life of one of the greatest civil rights leaders of all times. He had plenty of supporters in the state of Florida as he was creating a national civil rights movement.
It is worth mentioning that former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins was one of the few white politicians to embrace, support and befriend the iconic civil rights leader when it was far from popular to do so.
Collins, a Democrat from Tallahassee was elected to a four-year term in 1956, serving through 1960. The man who grew up in the old deep south entered office as a segregationist but by the time he finished his term he was one of the few politicians in the early 1960’s to embrace his newfound position as a vocal integrationist.
Let’s be clear Collins came very late to embrace the concept of civil rights and we will get to that later. But he did understand that the right thing to do was to understand and embrace civil and human rights.
Despite pushback from a number of Collins friends and other politicians in the south he jumped at the chance to become the man in charge of a newly created Community Relations Service (CRS). It was a federal agency committed to mediating local racial disputes that came into being back in 1964.
It was then President Lyndon Johnson who appointed Collins to be the director of the CRS. Both, Johnson and Collins, knew each other well as it was the former Florida governor who served as the chairman of the 1960 Democratic Convention. It was Collins, who was a finalist to become the running mate for Sen. John F. Kennedy on the 1960 Democratic ticket. But Collins put forth Johnson who at the time was a powerful senator from Texas to be vice president.
So, Johnson and Collins were friends and in many ways saw the world changing and while they both started their political careers suppressing black rights, they came to see and to understand suppressing civil rights would put them on the wrong side of history.
So with President Johnson’s backing Collins, put together his CRS staff making sure to hire a bi-racial staff. Once the staff was in place he traveled around the south and the country from Alabama, to New York. He spent a great deal of time talking with black civil rights leaders including Dr. King, John Lewis, and others.
Back on March 7, in the Spring of 1965, Dr. King wanted to lead a non-violent protest by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and marching from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. Collins was in Selma at the request of President Johnson because there was little doubt that a showdown between Dr. King and his followers would meet some very violent resistance from Alabama State Police under the direction of Gov. George Wallace, who got an injunction against the march.
President Johnson was aware that Collins and Wallace knew each other. He was hoping that two deep South white men could solve the problem without bloodshed.
It was Collins who spent hours going back and forth between Selma talking with Dr. King and other key members of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, then going across town to members of Alabama law enforcement who were taking their cues from Gov. Wallace.
Collins was able to craft a plan that was acceptable to both sides and to prove to all sides that he was representing President Johnson, he stood with Dr. King. If the Alabama State Police and Gov. Wallace was going to break their deal they were going unleash an attack on Collins and Dr. King.
The March 7th event did not take place and it was postponed until late in the month. Collins helped to get the injunction removed and to continue to work with Dr. King and Gov. Wallace to assure that the march would be nonviolent. Collins returned to Selma on March 25th of 1965, he walked with Dr. King for a few miles, to make certain that Gov. Wallace would be true to his word.
Dr. King continued to lead thousands of nonviolent demonstrators to the steps of the capital in Montgomery. The march took 5-days and covered 54-miles and it would likely never have happened if not for the political skills of Collins.
The relationship between Collins and Dr. King remained strong until his death by assignation in 1968. Ironically, that same year Collins hoped to make further strides in civil rights by serving as a United States Senator from Florida.
However, he lost the general election to Florida Republican Congressman Edward Gurney. Collins relationship with Dr. King cost him the election as Gurney used pictures of the two men marching side-by-side in Selma against him. He was branded as “Liberal Leroy,” and his embracing of civil rights was not rewarded by the voters of Florida.
Despite being only 58 at the time, Collins would not seek public office again. He returned to his home, The Grove, a mansion he bought in 1841, where he would continue his quest for better civil and human rights.
“Born and raised here in Tallahassee, I was accustomed early to a segregated society,” Collins told a Florida A&M University audience in 1981 at the 25th-anniversary commemoration of the Tallahassee bus boycott.
During the 1950s, Collins continued, “I made some statements that tended to align me with the conditions and majority thinking of my time.” But by the end of his 1968 campaign for the U.S. Senate, he was telling voters “that any rational man who looked at the horizon and saw the South of the future segregated was simply seeing a mirage.”
He spent the rest of his life traveling around the state and the country talking about civil rights and human rights. He died in 1991 at his home in Tallahassee.
Collins home in Tallassee The Grove Plantation, it is now a museum advancing both civil right and human rights. It also tracks over 200 years of Florida history.
Video used in this story came from Florida Memories. Some of the historical points and quotes used in this story came from the multiple reports about the life of Gov. Leroy Collins.