Collins, (Thomas) LeRoy

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Collins, (Thomas) LeRoy

(b. 10 March 1909 in Tallahassee, Florida; d. 12 March 1991 in Tallahassee, Florida), governor of Florida who is best remembered for his moderate leadership with regard to civil rights and his commitment to good government.

Collins was the fourth child of Marvin Herring Collins and Mattie Albritton Brandon. He grew up on the outskirts of Tallahassee, Florida, where his father owned a grocery. Marvin Collins descended from a long line of Methodist preachers, and Collins’s mother hoped that her son might follow the same calling. Roy, as his family and friends called him, held little interest in the clergy. Although he later became an Episcopalian, he remained a faithful churchgoer, and his religious convictions influenced his later political career. Upon graduating from high school in 1927, Collins moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, to attend Eastman’s Business School in 1928. He finished the one-year program in a single semester and quickly moved back to Tallahassee, where he took a job as a bank teller. In 1930 Collins enrolled at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, to study in the university’s one-year law program. The next year Collins returned to Florida with his LL.B., passed the Florida bar examination with the highest score up to that time, and set up his own law practice. Unfortunately, his practice, like that of many other Florida lawyers in the Great Depression, did not grow quickly.

Collins entered politics largely because of the difficulty in earning a living as a lawyer. In 1932 he sought to marry the former Mary Call Darby but recognized that his practice was not generating the income necessary to support a family and decided to run for the position of Leon County prosecutor. While he ran well, he lost to the incumbent candidate. Despite the defeat, he and Mary Call married on 29 June 1932. They remained married until his death, raising four children.

Collins, a lifelong Democrat, again ran for office in 1934 and was elected state representative for Leon County, a position he held for three two-year terms. In 1940 Collins ran successfully for state senator, holding that position until 1953, interrupted only by World War II. During the war, Collins volunteered for the U.S. Navy, serving as a military prosecutor. Collins’s career in the Florida legislature was marked by his commitment to a progressive philosophy that sought to better the condition of the state’s citizens. He introduced and supported legislation that improved public schools, promoted automotive safety, and mandated fiscal responsibility. While he often met resistance from powerful rural legislators, he gained prestige in the eyes of many Floridians.

In 1954 Collins ran for the governorship against the very rural interests he had battled in the legislature. The election, which was held to fill the term of the recently deceased incumbent, pitted Collins against the conservative president of the Florida State Senate. Collins won the election on a platform promising government reforms, carrying the more populous counties of south Florida with a message of progress and economic development. As governor, Collins distinguished his tenure by expanding the number of state-supported universities and community colleges, by promoting tourism and economic development, and by striving to remedy the abuses of cronyism. In 1956 voters elected Collins to a full term.

As with most other governors of southern states in the 1950s, the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional, shaped Collins’s term in office. Collins responded with moderation, defending segregation while calling for adherence to the Court’s decision. In 1955 it seemed that most Floridians agreed with this approach. By 1956, however, staunch segregationists were branding Collins an integrationist and attacking his moderate positions. The tactics of his critics, as well as his personal religious convictions, convinced Collins of the immorality of segregation and racism, distancing him from most southern politicians. In 1960 Collins presided as chairman of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which nominated John F. Kennedy for president of the United States; this further separated Collins from the mainstream of southern politics.

At the end of his governorship, Collins took a break from politics. From 1961 to 1964 he served as the president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). While with the NAB, Collins pushed broadcasters to serve the public interest by reducing violent programming and eliminating television cigarette advertising. Although successful in the private sphere, Collins soon returned to government. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to head the Community Relations Service (CRS), which was created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to foster peaceful implementation of civil rights policies. As head of the CRS, Collins was most prominent in orchestrating the successful second voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on 9 March 1965. Later that year, Collins was appointed undersecretary of commerce. In this capacity, he helped negotiate an end to the rioting and unrest in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts.

In 1966 Collins left the Commerce Department in order to run for the United States Senate in 1968. As former governor, Collins enjoyed a great deal of popularity in Florida, but his stance against segregation and his role in CRS angered many Floridians. His Republican rival in the 1968 race, Edward John Gurney, drew on this well of opposition. Labeling Collins “Liberal LeRoy,” his opponent appealed to conservative discontent and defeated Collins in the general election.

Collins retired from government following his 1968 defeat, but he did not retire from public life. He remained a champion for progressive political values, especially in his opposition to capital punishment. In 1990 Collins was named a finalist for the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which is given by the Kennedy Library Foundation to recognize courage in championing political causes. Lung cancer claimed Collins’s life in 1991. He was buried in Tallahassee.

In the minds of many Floridians, Collins was the model governor, dedicated to the betterment of his state for all of its citizens. Upon hearing of his death, the Florida Legislature immediately passed a resolution naming Collins the “Floridian of the Century.” Not always loved for his politics, Collins earned the respect of all Floridians for his principled stands for a better society.

There are two major collections of Collins’s personal papers. The Special Collections Department of the University of South Florida Library in Tampa holds a major collection with emphasis on Collins’s tenure as governor and his 1968 senatorial campaign. In addition, the Special Collections Department of the Florida State University Library in Tallahassee maintains an important collection of papers related to his tenure in the state legislature as well as his postpolitical life. Tom Wagy has written the only full-length biography of Collins, Governor LeRoy Collins of Florida: Spokesman of the New South (1985), a very sympathetic interpretation of his career. His obituary is in the New York Times (13 Mar. 1991).

Evan P. Bennett

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Collins, (Thomas) LeRoy

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