Column: Floridians, remember the words of my great-grandfather, Gov. LeRoy Collins

Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins: “A fight for right is never lost.”
Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins: “A fight for right is never lost.”
Published Nov. 10, 2016

In 1963, my great-grandfather, Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, was asked to speak at the Greater Chamber of Commerce in Columbia, S.C. It was a year of violence. A president and civil rights leader, both assassinated. Children in their Sunday clothes blown to pieces at church.

In the midst of political upheaval and a fight for civil rights in which victory seemed far from certain, my great-grandfather had a message: "Rout forces of hate." As I have struggled to process the vitriol and divisiveness of this election, I keep returning to his words.

"That all men are created equal is not an empty cliché. It was not put in our Declaration of Independence by Jefferson merely to stir our revolutionary forces to greater sacrifice. It is a mighty idea that is the keystone of our nation's whole meaning and perpetual commitment. It is the basic idea that supports the dignity of man as an individual. It is an idea that can never be stopped. Not by custom — not by prejudice — not by hate — not by murder — not by armies — not by any mortal force. It may be thwarted. It may be delayed. Its triumph may be at great cost and sacrifice. But it will keep coming on and on, for it has the invincibility of simple truth, justice and right."

In the wake of this election, this exhortation feels more urgent than ever.

The racialized and gendered rhetoric of this past year should concern us, not as partisans but as human beings. Rhetoric has material consequences, and this election has inflicted deep wounds. Our president-elect has called Mexicans rapists, suggested that we close our borders to Muslims, demeaned and threatened the bodies of women, and spearheaded a witch hunt into the Americanness of our first black president. He was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, which has claimed a role in his victory. This must give us pause.

I understand that many who voted for him do not agree with his statements. I understand that many of his supporters have grievances of their own. However, I hope that Donald Trump's victory — and the understandable desire to return to normalcy after so long and painful an election — do not deafen our ears to the fear of those now led by a president who has assaulted their very existence. There is real pain in Florida today.

Now is a time for healing, but healing does not mean we can forget the lessons of the past or the high price courageous individuals have paid for progress. And healing is not possible if we ignore the manifold injustices that continue to affect marginalized Americans or minimize the pain this election has caused.

If we allow equality to become partisan, we will have undermined the ideals that underpin our country — ideals for which we have always, imperfectly strived. We have the power to bend the arc of the universe. To do right is a calling, not a given.

Today, my great-grandfather is remembered as "Floridian of the Century." Governors across parties, from Bob Graham to Jeb Bush, have called him their role model. However, in the 1960s he was threatened by the klan, shunned by his community and forced to watch his name and political career dragged through the dirt by an opposition whose most potent weapon against him was a picture of him with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala.

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I do not want to simplify the journey that brought him to Selma. A white, working-class Southern man, he entered politics with the biases of his time and position. His championship of civil rights was the product of self-criticism and empathy — an active effort to walk in the shoes of others. Yet for me, this is what makes him great — not that he was perfect, but that he actively sought to do and be better.

In these trying days, I find comfort and strength in example he set for me and for all Floridians. We have the privilege — and the burden — of living in a state that so often determines the outcome of elections. We must not translate our diversity as division. My great-grandfather had an unshakable belief in Floridians. And so do I.

Together, we can work to dismantle injustice and build a more equal society. It will be uncomfortable, difficult and may at times feel hopeless, but in the words of my great-grandfather: "A fight for right is never lost. What we fail to achieve we will make easier for achievement by those who will follow. God forbid that it shall ever be said … 'they did not have the vision to see,' or seeing, 'they did not have the will to try.' "

Jane Darby Menton, the great-granddaughter of Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, is a Rhodes Scholar who grew up in Tallahassee and graduated from Yale University in 2015. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.