SOUTHERN POLITICS: Judge Robert Collins Speaks
By Robert Morris
Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 26
“Without a pool of competent attorneys who can focus on pressing the legitimate claims of minorities, those rights will be neglected, eroded, and perhaps eventually destroyed,” said Judge Robert F. Collins, speaking to luncheon guests of the SRC Annual Meeting recently. President Carter’s appointee to the U.S. District Court in New Orleans and the South’s only Black federal judge in this century, Collins spoke of his own experiences in capsuling three decades of civil rights activity in the South. Collins’ own education began as a court case. It took a lawsuit to open the doors for him and two other Blacks to enter the Louisiana State University Law School. After graduation, he worked on local counsel in Louisiana for the Congress of Racial Equality and cooperated with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
During the 60s, Collins argued eight civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, including ones involving a student march on the Baton Rouge courthouse, Black students reading books in a Clinton, LA., library and sit-in protests in the streets.
With the help of the Voter Education Project, Blacks worked for ten years in New Orleans to raise the number of registered Black voters from 20 to 45 percent, Collins said. “Because of similar effort, the state now has the highest percentage of Black elected officials in the United States.” Although many are in minor positions, it is a start, he said. “Upon that base a lot can be built … the number is still infinitesimal,” Collins noted, referring to the fact that the number of Black elected officials in the United States is less than 2 percent.
Since the 60s, a “civic malaise” has slowed the rate of progress and “some have come to be complacent or satisfied,” Collins said. “But we still have significant numbers of the population who live in poverty and ignorance,” and have not seen the effects of change.”
Another threat to the progress of civil rights is the rise of special interest groups, Collins said. They are disproportionately powerful. “Politicians feel that they can maintain themselves in power as long as they can keep the interests of these groups. Then they can ignore the interests of Blacks and other minorities.” Only a lifetime of persisting work, he emphasized, can insure that the gains of civil rights are not lost in the next generation.
Robert Morris is a student at Georgia State University.