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Martin Dyckman

THE GREATEST FLORIDIAN

If Florida were serious about its state holidays, then March 10 ought to be one of them. LeRoy Collins, the greatest Floridian, was born a century ago today.

Collins, governor from 1955 to 1961, is remembered for vetoing the legislation that would have closed public schools to prevent desegregation. He was also the father of Florida's superb junior college system, and he began the ultimately successful struggles for legislative reapportionment and a modern state constitution.

Florida's history during the desegregation era would have been tragically different had Collins lost to Acting Gov. Charley Johns in the special election of 1954 for the unfinished term of the late Dan McCarty. Returning to the Senate, Johns voted for the school-closing legislation that Collins vetoed and for other racist garbage, including a legally meaningless but incendiary "interposition" resolution declaring Florida's defiance of the federal judiciary. Collins wrote in longhand on the face of it, to be preserved in the archives forever, that it was "an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria."

His most invaluable service was the moral and spiritual example he provided to Floridians who, like himself, had been raised to accept racial segregation as a matter of fact and faith.

When he ran for governor, Collins pledged to "use all the lawful power of the governor's office to uphold this custom and law."

Unlike so many others, however, he was a sensitive and thoughtful man whose conscience and religious convictions were susceptible to being touched by the heroic struggles of black Americans for the civil rights that whites took for granted. His public speeches over the decade following his 1954 election trace a courageous personal journey. It was the sort of courage that is as rare among politicians today as it was then: the courage to change.

In 1957, with Tallahassee on edge over a black bus boycott, Collins in his second inaugural address expressed his conviction that the "average white citizen" did not mind sitting next to black people on buses "any more than he objects to riding the same elevators . . . or patronizing the same stores." His declaration that the "Negro does not now have equal opportunities" gave the lie to the underlying "separate but equal" justification for legal segregation.

At that time, Collins was still cautioning black leaders against trying to push white society too far too fast. But by 1960, his last year in office, in a statewide television speech intended to relieve tensions over lunch-counter sit-ins, he said it was contrary to "moral, simple justice" for store owners to discriminate against their black clientele. What followed was revolutionary.

Addressing himself to the white complaint that blacks should "just stay in their place," Collins said, "Now friends, that's not a Christian point of view. That's not a democratic point of view. That's not a realistic point of view. We can never stop Americans from struggling to be free. We can never stop Americans from hoping and praying that some day in some way this ideal that is embedded in our Declaration of Independence is one of these truths that are inevitable, that all men are created equal, that that somehow will be a reality and not just an illusory distant goal."

With that speech, Collins became the first Southern governor to declare segregation morally wrong. He also told his Christian brethren what few of their pastors dared to say: that segregation was a hypocrisy.

By the time he died in 1991, Florida had come to appreciate his greatness.

He was the most literate and eloquent of Florida's governors despite his lack of a conventional college education.

Collins had not thought of studying law, the profession that took him into politics, until it was suggested to him by a distant cousin, Glen Terrell, a state Supreme Court justice. Terrell was an outspoken racist who once cited Hitler to justify segregation in the United States. That he inspired the career of the man who led Florida out of the wilderness is one of history's magnificent ironies.

Martin Dyckman, a retired Times associate editor, is author of Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins.

THE GREATEST FLORIDIAN 03/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 7:25pm]

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