Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965

By Davis W. Houck; David E. Dixon | Go to book overview
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1960
§48 Governor LeRoy Collins

Thomas LeRoy Collins, born March 10, 1909 was the 33rd governor of Florida. Ironically, while Collins remains best known for his open opposition to segregation, the Tallahassean entered the political spotlight in support of it. Collins found the idea of segregation immoral as well as socially and economically harmful, though his belief in lawful behavior left him conflicted. These clashing ideals led him to decisions that seemed inconsistent during his time in the Florida House (1934–1940) and the Florida Senate (1940–1942, 1946–1954). For example, he opposed poll tax repeals but wanted to unmask the KKK. In 1952 Collins began working with Governor Dan McCarty to pass legislation, but McCarty died mid-term in 1954, and his lawful successor and head of the Senate, Charley Johns, replaced all of McCarty’s men with his own. Collins decided then to run against him for governor—and won a special election. His views on segregation became apparent in 1957, when the Last Resort Bill, which would have closed down public schools before integrating them, passed. It would have become law without Collins’s veto. He delivered a pro-integration address in that same year during the Tallahassee bus boycott, avoiding violence at all costs.

In 1960, after a close defeat by Lyndon B. Johnson for the vice presidency, his hometown of Tallahassee started to heat up. Praised by the St. Petersburg Times as the greatest speech ever delivered by a Florida governor, Collins’s race relations address could not have happened at a more volatile time. The South was in chaos after eight straight weeks of lunch counter sit-ins (with Tallahassee being in its fifth). The student-led sit-ins started famously on February 1, with the four freshmen from North Carolina A&T sitting in at a local Woolworth’s. Sit-ins were also causing the legal and social disintegration of Tallahassee, resulting in students being beaten and sprayed with tear gas and fire hoses, boycotts, and riotous showdowns consisting of over a thousand protesters. On March 12, nearly 250 Florida A&M University (FAMU) students marched in protest over the arrest of 23 activists. Police used tear gas to disperse the marchers. Many students were injured in the chaos, including FAMU student-activist, Patricia Stephens (later Patricia Stephens Due), whose vision was permanently damaged. Restaurants were closed and roped off for fear of being overtaken, while dozens of police officers, deputies, highway patrolmen, and officers from other agencies patrolled the streets. White students were encouraged not to attend any meetings at which demonstrations were even discussed. To make matters worse, politicians in Florida were mostly silent or opposed to the issue of integration due to the upcoming election campaign. Collins’s speech occurred at a time when his action was predicted to cost him his political career. More importantly, his broadcast sparked enough national controversy such that few southern politicians could afford to stay silent on the matter of desegregation.

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