The Leadership of Leroy Collins. “I Kept Hammering:” Leroy Collins
By John Griffin
Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, pp. 17-21, 23
EDITOR’S NOTE: At the 1988 Annual Meeting, held in Atlanta in November, Leroy Collins of Florida and Margaret Walker Alexander of Mississippi were honored as Life Fellows of the Southern Regional Council. Mrs. Walker was unable to attend the awards dinner, but former Governor Collins was present, and was introduced by his long-time friend and now fellow life member, John Griffin of Atlanta. Following the awards presentation, Griffin “interviewed. Collins about his life and work. Bill Steverson edited the following excerpts from their remarks.
JOHN GRIFFIN: Let me just briefly give a word or two about Governor Collins. He was Governor of Florida from 1955 to 1961. In this period and later he became a regional and a national leader. He was seen as a spokesman for the new South. During the Civil Rights struggle he was a moderate, speaking against the organized resistance that was mounting throughout the South, and calling on the people of Florida to change their views on racial matters and to acknowledge the justice of the black claims. When the sit-in movement hit Tallahassee, Governor Collins made a remarkable statewide TV appearance in which he appealed for law and order and for the acceptance of change by fellow Floridians. The speech was given widespread attention, for it was so very different from what was going on in other capital cities of the South with other governors under similar circumstances.
After the passage of the Civil Rights bill of 1964 Governor Collins was asked by President Johnson if he would head the Community Relations Service, the agency that was set up as a troubleshooting agency with civil rights problems. Governor Collins brought that agency into being, directed it and got it in good speed before he moved over to become Undersecretary of Commerce.
At Selma he accomplished a remarkable compromise to avoid a second confrontation on the [Edmund Pettus] bridge when he persuaded the Alabama state police to accept a plan whereby Dr. King and his followers would march just over the bridge and instead of moving on would stop and have a prayer service and then turn back. He managed to sell this idea both to Dr. King and to Sheriff Clark and the others in the state force, but he didn’t know whether it was going to work or not. He put himself in the middle of that situation, physically standing in the middle of the highway, knowing that if by any reason any movement was made toward Dr. King that he would personally make an effort to intercede. There was much else about the CRS history in this period that we owe Governor Collins a vote of thanks for establishing this important agency.
After the Community Relations Service, Governor Collins for one year was Undersecretary of Commerce and then he returned to Florida. One of the saddest things was that his role in civil rights in my judgment was the factor that kept him out of the United States Senate, for in 1968 pictures that had been made of Governor Collins talking with Andy Young and Dr. King and others were used as a device to keep him out of the Senate by his opponent in the general election.
LEROY COLLINS: I think maybe I ought to tell you of an experience I had when I started practicing law when I was a young man of twenty-one in 1931. I had grown up there in the community working in stores and keeping pretty busy around town but nobody ever thought I was going to become
a lawyer. But I made it. And I came back and I started practicing law. I wasn’t offered a job with any other lawyer so I just rented a little office for twenty dollars a month and I got a girl–a young woman–who wanted to be a sort of apprentice and learn secretarial work for a lawyer and so she started out as my secretary with even less pay than I was paying rent.
In 1931 those were very dark economic times as you have read or knew. It was very very tough. I had great difficulty getting any business at all. I hadn’t been practicing long before a farmer came in to me and he said he had had a cow run over by the railroad train. He wanted me to sue the railroad for damages. Well, I just thought that was manna from heaven. He said this cow was an unusual cow. While most of his cattle were old sorry range cows this particular cow happened to be a fine pure-bred registered heifer–there used to be a saying that the way to produce a fine pure-bred registered heifer was to take an old broken-down range cow and cross her with a Seaboard Coastline locomotive.
The railroad company wanted to make a test case out of it and take it on to the state Supreme Court to get some issue of law settled. They brought down to Tallahassee a whole battery of lawyers, one from New York and two from Norfolk, Va. Then they had their local staff. We were in the court room and this great battery of lawyers was sitting around one table. The old farmer and I were sitting at the other table all by ourselves.
It was kind of discouraging but I put on my evidence and I thought I made out a pretty good case. Then I made the opening argument to the jury, after all the evidence was in. I thought I reached heights of eloquence and oratory in that presentation that had never been achieved–in our community at least.
Then one after another these railroad lawyers started arguing their case. I mean, they were fine lawyers. After about the third one spoke, my client leaned over to me and says, “Say, son have you got another chance to argue to that jury?” And I said, “Oh, yes. When they get all through I’m going to make the closing argument.” He said, “Why, that’s good. You tell them that the railroad company is a great big rich corporation and had plenty of money and could get plenty of lawyers and I was just a poor old farmer and couldn’t get much.”
Well, I told them just what he said tell them. They brought in a verdict of $500 for that cow.
GRIFFIN: I think an appropriate starting point would be to ask you to talk a little bit about leadership and political leadership and statesmanship.
COLLINS: Not so long ago I was talking to a group of youngsters down in Tallahassee about leadership. I told them they had to start off with a basic bedrock of character to expect to be good leaders. They had to have character and values and they had to tell the truth. They had to walk a good straight line. Over and beyond that I told them that I had been surprised at how many youngsters their age were completely unmindful of the obligations of leadership of I people in public life. Several of them told me that they wanted to become governor someday. I asked why and they said, “Well, you’ve got this great big house you can live in. You’ve got that limousine. You’ve got these highway patrolmen. You go into these parades.” They were thinking entirely in terms of the show and the ostentatious part of being a governor. They weren’t thinking at all in terms of what they were going to do as governor. I said if you are going to be a leader you need to determine what you want to do so that you can establish some goals.
In my own situation, when I was about that age representing that farmer, I was thinking very deeply about how I could help on some problems that were in that community. I wasn’t thinking about being in public life, actually. I had represented the school board and so I saw what a horrible situation we had in schools in Florida. We had our counties divided up in districts. Each district had a school and they were dependent on tax revenues produced in that district to support that school.
So the poor districts had poor schools that were little or nothing. The in-town districts were pretty strong with a tax base and they had pretty good schools.
I thought that if I could get into the legislature that I could have an opportunity to make laws and to set up programs. I found that I could when the people elected me to the legislature.
When I got into the legislature, well, it was the greatest thrill of my lifetime that I could find some people who were thinking deeply about what we came to call a Minimum Foundation Law that would put the state for the first time in the business of guaranteeing every child in Florida a decent education in public schools.
So I got involved with that. Two people came up with a plan. It was an excellent plan. It wee immediately repudiated by legislators, by the then-governor and by the people because it wee very complex. We organized a plan to go all over the state and tell people what it meant and what it would mean in terms of developing citizens of the future and developing educational opportunity for all of our children. We got the PTAs to listen to us and we got other organizations to listen to us. We got enough public sentiment. In a short time, the next session of the legislature, we passed that in Florida. It’s been a stalwart of supporting educational progress over the time since. The same basic idea has been utilized in many states since. I always had the satisfaction that I had found something that was of great use to the people that I could accomplish and help accomplish in public service.
So that’s one thing that I would insist upon them. I would insist an element of leadership is the ability to see and to find useful goals and not be just thinking in terms of people holding positions and holding office.
There is the Thomas Jefferson memorial in Virginia. You all are aware of this, but Thomas Jefferson insisted and
made provision requiring all the details of his [tombstone]. He specified that there would be three things carved into that monument. These three things were: Author of the Declaration of Independence, Author of the Virginia Article of Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.
I think that’s very interesting. Jefferson has always been one of my great heroes. Here he was thinking exactly in the terms of what was important in contributions that he was able to make in his lifetime. You know he didn’t mention a single office he held. There was a man who was in the legislative service of the state of Virginia, he became Governor of Virginia, he was in the Congress, made laws there, he became Vice President of the United States, he became President of the United States, he became Ambassador to France. Yet not one word did he want put on that monument in respect to his service except those three things. Why? Because these three things embraced basic ideas for human progress that would be limitless in their application for all the years ahead. He was thinking in terms of the use of power and not in terms of holding power.
I couldn’t help but think and I hope that I won’t be accused here of trying to prolong a campaign that’s over, but I couldn’t help but think of the recitation of all of these offices held that we’ve heard about President (Bush): United Nations, China, and we just heard them over and over and over. What was said about what he did at the United Nations? Nothing. What did he do when he was in China? Nothing. Or if he did nobody’s telling about it and they’re missing the most important thing. Because that would have been the real basis of judging the quality of his service to mankind and to his country.
GRIFFIN: Do you think a leader ought to deal with goals he’s not sure he can achieve? Should he leave those off the agenda or not?
COLLINS: Yea sir, if it’s a worthy goal he ought to stand for it whether he feels it’s attainable or not. In the first place he’s not going to attain it if he doesn’t try. I’ve got a little piece on the wall in my office written by a German philosopher who said, “Sometimes it is more important to make a beginning than to produce the finished article.” It is important that beginnings be made.
I heard a governor and a man that I respected very highly say one time when he wee talking to his primary supporters and the people on his team that he wanted to go for things that they could be assured would be attainable. He said, “I don’t want to waste our energies and waste our time and all fooling with things that we can’t accomplish.”
Well, I just disagree with that philosophy. I believe that if there is a cause that needs sponsorship and you believe in it that you ought to do what you can to achieve it. For a number of reasons. Even if you don’t achieve it you’ve built a step. You’ve started toward that goal and you’ve made it easier for somebody else coming along to push it further. Maybe after a process of sponsorship like that the ultimate goal will be accomplished very easily because as that progression goes, why, popular opinion is developed and then it’s easy to do.
GRIFFIN: Were there things in your administration aa governor that you didn’t get accomplished?
COLLINS: I was determined when I ran for governor to do something about Florida’s apportionment of its legislature. We had one of the most malapportioned legislatures in the country. I made this an issue in my campaign for governor. All the little counties were just benefiting tremendously because of their benefit from malapportionment. We had less than 17 percent of the people scattered around in these smaller counties, but they were exerting a majority power in the legislature.
I was determined to get something done about that. I didn’t know how but I was determined to do it and I told the people very frankly, and as a consequence I didn’t carry any of the little counties. The big ones elected me. I went into the legislature determined to get that done. Well, we were frankly face-to-face with an almost impossible task, because the Supreme Court of the United States had held that at the state level apportionment would be controlled by the legislature. Local rule, home rule. The equal protection of the laws guarantee did not apply. Our state Supreme Court, following that, had held that whatever the legislature said that apportionment would be it would have to be.
Well, I just hammered away. Sometimes it looked like I could get some little bit done but then I’d fall back. I kept hammering. I put that legislature in three or four special sessions to get legislative apportionment because the constitution obligated the legislature to do it on a fair basis every ten years.
I failed to do that. But I want to tell you the rest of this story. Soon after I finished my sex years as governor, the United States Supreme Court reversed that old decision and with the petitions that Florida and Tennessee and Hawaii had filed, they said that under those showings in those states that this was a violation of equal protection of the laws and that that legislature had to be apportioned on the basis of population. The legislature still wouldn’t do it so the court ordered a professor of political science at the University of Florida to figure out what would be fair and the court approved that. So we got it reapportioned.
After I went to Washington I went to one of these beautiful Georgetown dinner parties and Justice Hugo Black was there. He said, “Governor tell us about some of your successes as Governor.” So I just ticked off quite a few, you know, schools, and all these various things that I’d been
working very actively in. And he said, “Now what was your greatest failure?” I said, “My failure was that I could not get our legislature reapportioned in spite of my commitment to the people to do it. I failed.” He said, “Governor that wasn’t a failure. Well, you know our court passed upon this case? You know how we saw the light? We knew what you were doing down there in Florida. We knew what they were doing in Hawaii. We knew what they were doing in Tennessee. This court came to understand that we had to in all logic and soundness decide that it was a breakdown in equal protection of the laws. That wasn’t any failure.” I said, “Judge you don’t know how good that makes me feel. Even so, I didn’t get it done my way.” But he said, “You got it done our way.”
Now, this is the point I wanted to make. This is where we started. If I had recognized that it was unattainable like other governors had over and over again, they would not have gotten that message from Florida. They would not have gotten that message from those people in Tennessee and those people in Hawaii. They learned that. So you never can tell. If you’ve got a good cause, if you know you’re right, do the best you can with it. That’s my philosophy of a leader.
GRIFFIN: When I was at Florida State University I remember so well the sit-in strikes developing in Tallahassee and the magnificent response you made by taking a Sunday afternoon time to a network of TV stations and without notes and without a script, making a speech calling on the people of Florida to change and to be aware of the necessity of change. Talk about that, if you will.
COLLINS: It was a very critical time. It was about Easter time and I had just been to church. We’d gone over that story about the crucifixion, about Pontius Pilate. We were having these stupid, silly rows in the street in Tallahassee and in one or two other places around over the state in response to the sit-in at the lunch counters. It was growing and growing and I just went down and had that (TV) hookup. I sat down there and I just talked to the people of Florida about that whole problem. I said that so far as I understood that the (State) Court had recently ruled in Florida that a person who has a store that has different departments can offer service to everybody in some and can discriminate and eliminate by virtue of the racial background and color of black people from others. I said, “To me even if it’s legally right, it’s morally wrong. How can you justify and say it’s right in your heart and mind for a store owner to invite people to come in there and take his money for business at one counter and not let him trade at another counter if he wants to trade there?” I said, “I just can’t equate that with a decent attitude toward fellow people and our fellow man.”
I told them about the crucifixion. I said, “Now what’s happening here reminds me of this Easter story and the crucifixion. When Pilate was judging the guilt and innocence of Christ, why, he found him innocent. And yet the mob outside, the mob became so raucous and so demanding that this strong Pilate, who was supposed to be a strong, able person, wilted and withered and lost his sense of obligation to do right and say the right thing. He just told, the crowd to take it and do what you please. Do what you want to about it.” I said, “We simply as citizens of this state cannot turn Florida over to a mob. Because there is a small number of people out there howling in the streets, we’ve got to have the strength to stand up for right and justice and follow that course. I’m doing something that I don’t know whether it’s been done in other states or not. But we are going to have us some bi-racial committees, black and white on them.
“I’ve appointed one at the state level that’s being headed up by at my request by Cody Fowler, who was then president of the American Bar Association, a very distinguished and a fine and a just person. We picked other people to serve with him, black people and white people. They are going to start sitting down and we are going to find ways that we can begin adjusting our attitudes and feelings and standing against turning this state over to any mobs or any people running around with an ax.”
There was a tremendous reaction from the people of Florida. I just got thousands and thousands of letters, most of them supporting me.
GRIFFIN: Governor Collins, another time when you were in a very difficult leadership situation was when you were made permanent president of the Democratic Convention in 1980, the convention where Mr. Kennedy was nominated. Some things existed in that situation which under slightly different circumstances might have put you on that ticket.
COLLINS: The convention was run completely differently than they are run now. In those days it was really more of a parliamentary function. I mean, the chairman was in charge. He had motions made from the floor and there were all kinds of maneuverings around that he was involved in You don’t even see now or know who the permanent chairman is. It’s just a TV show now, really.
There was a very favorable press to my service in that respect. There was some talk and some reference in the newspapers to the possibility of me being a vice-presidential nominee. I did not encourage it because I was determined to get that job (chairman of the convention) over and I didn’t want to be in the position of being any candidate or anything like that. I just wanted to follow it through as I had told them I would on a completely impartial basis.
Kennedy actually made the choice of Lyndon Johnson and I suppose it was a very wise choice because Johnson was able to carry Texas and it was by the margin of Texas that Kennedy won.
GRIFFIN: There was wide applause for the way you handled that very raucous convention. I remember one comment that was made by a woman from New’ Jersey who said, “If the Democrats had nominated LeRoy Collins for president every woman in the United States regardless of party affiliation or age
would have voted for him.”
COLLINS: What a doll she was!
My biggest problem in keeping order there in the convention was the commotion that the group on the floor created when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt came. She came about three times and she wouldn’t tell us when she was coming, so we couldn’t be prepared for it. She would just turn that convention into just complete disorder. I could bang on that gavel and it wouldn’t make any difference at all. It was tough.
Adlai Stevenson was another who wanted to be a dark horse at that time. He had run before and failed. But he really wanted, I think, to be drafted and there was not that sentiment but there still was a strong favorable sentiment for Stevenson so he caused some commotion there.
That’s the reason I got some sympathy from around over the country because the convention was so unruly.
GRIFFIN: Soon after that you were asked by the National Association of Broadcasters to become their president and you moved to Washington as president.
COLLINS: Yes. That was an interesting experience. They wanted me to come as soon as I finished up the governorship in Florida and to be president of the National Association of Broadcasters. I was rather interested in that. In the first place I had gotten badly in debt as governor and I needed to pay off some debts and they offered me a very fine salary, particularly for that time. They offered to provide me a home in Washington. They offered to provide me an automobile. They were just very generous to me.
I wanted to make it clear and I tried to make it clear that what appealed to me about it was the close relationship between broadcasting and the public interest. I had become oriented in government to the public interest. They said that they wanted me to appear before the congressional committees for them and advocate the cause of broadcasting. I told them at the time that I thought I could do an effective job as long as we kept our standards in place and put them in place so that broadcasting would be responsive to the public interest. That’s the basis upon which they gave me the job.
As time went on we started to get some division in the ranks of the broadcasters. The majority of them always supported me. But there were some who felt, they were extreme conservatives I guess you’d call them, that everybody in private business should be on their own to make what they could by doing what they wanted to do. It came to a climax when the Surgeon General ruled that cigarettes smoking was a direct cause of cancer. I looked at my television one day right after that and here was Roger Maris, a baseball hero for every young boy–and girls, too–in the country, and he was down in the dugout surrounded by all these Yankee baseball players and he was puffing on this cigarette talking about how wonderful it was to be smoking one of these cigarettes.
I told the broadcasters that I thought they should take steps to deny broadcast advertising that would promote the use of cigarettes by young people. That was a first step. Then the whole subject should be studied carefully looking toward the possibilities of getting completely out of it.
The [broadcasters] who wanted to be left alone to do what they wanted to, they really got furious about that. Figured that they were going to lose $10 billion a year in revenue from cigarette advertising. So we had a couple of meetings of our board that they were really taking me to task. I reminded them of the basis upon which I was engaged and I said, “This is the way I want to do it. If you want me to do it my way, well, I’d like to stay with you. If you don’t want me to do it my way, well, I don’t went to do it your way. Let’s find some way to terminate this relationship.”
That got a little sticky. They took two or three votes. In all the votes I got more than a majority of support and I could have stayed on there, but that was just about the time of the  march on Washington.
I went to that march, that great congregation of people down there on the mall. I was tremendously impressed with it. I went by myself and I just went in the crowd. I wasn’t a guest of anybody’s or anything like that. That moving, mass of people who were so deeply intent on their goal and what they were hoping to achieve. There wasn’t any disorder anywhere. There wasn’t anybody screaming, wasn’t any rowdiness or demonstrations like happened in Chicago and a lot of other places. It was just a quiet mass of humanity. There were black people, brown people, white people–everybody was there. I was right in the crowd.
I heard Dr. King’s speech there. This made a profound impact on me. I thought, this is history. This is really history being made. This is America moving to a better society in a big way. It wasn’t three or four days after that that President Johnson called me and said that the Congress was about to pass this Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that in it was a Title X which created a Community Relations Service. He needed to get a director for it. He said, “I know what you’re making in that broadcasting job. I’ve found out all about that. I’m not offering you anything like that. The salary is going to be $20,000 a year. That’s some reduction from whet you’re making now.” But then he said, “I’m not asking you to do this as a political matter. I’ve talked to Congressmen, I’ve talked to other people all over this country and they feel and I feel that you can do this job for your country at a critical time in its history better than anybody else in the United States.”
I agreed to try it. It was one of the greatest experiences I ever had in my life.
GRIFFIN: You put some of that same pressure on some of your friends.
COLLINS: I had John Griffin, and Max Secrest and just hundreds, just a lot of them. We had about half white and half black. That’s the first time I’d been in any environment like that. We hadn’t progressed with desegregation in Florida. You see, I was Governor down there before the Civil Rights Act was passed. That was the time this nation really committed itself, under that Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before we were just talking about school desegregation. But once that federal law was passed why, people realized that something was happening.
I was proud of our work. I won’t try to tell you all that we did but we did a great deal. Under the law we were required
to keep all of our doings secret. So unless the newspaper people saw us in action, why they didn’t get any stories because we didn’t hold any press conferences and tell them what we were doing. We were just getting that job done, working in these big cities all over the country.
Selma was a tremendous stress for us. I went down there and there was a proceeding before the court. Judge [Frank M.] Johnson was one of the best federal judges we had in the country and one of the most understanding and helpful ones in racial matters. He had a petition before him to enjoin Dr. King. See, they’d had an attempted march just five days before and it had broken down. These troops [George Wallace’s Alabama state troopers] met them and brutally beat these people and had a number of them in the hospitals. Dr. King then called on the nation and called on preachers especially, from all the denominations, to come to Selma within four or five days after that. And he was determined to make that march. Yet there was a court order by a good judge preventing him from making the march. So I was trying to find some kind of compromise.
I tried to get help from the Attorney General [Robert Kennedy]. He said he couldn’t do it because the Attorney General had to comply with the court mandate enjoining them doing anything. So this little CRS Service was all by ourselves. We tried to feel where we might make some kind of way to avoid another massacre on that bridge. We worked out that plan that while ultimately they were going to Montgomery, so far as this time was concerned they would go across the bridge and stop there across the bridge and pray and talk a little, for 20 minutes, and sing, and then Dr. King would ask them to go back, with the understanding that they would go on to Montgomery at a later time.
Dr. King–we were up with him the night before. At two or three o’clock in the morning–he was staying with a dentist there in Selma–and he said, “I can’t agree to this because I don’t think these people are going to stop. If they go and go across that bridge they’re going to want to go right on to [Montgomery]. Troops or no troops.” I said, “Well, can you ask them to stop? And plead with them to stop? They are going to get to Montgomery, but we’ve just got to have a lit le time here. Let’s see what this order of the court is going to be.”
He agreed with me that he would try to do it if I could get the others to do it. So then we spent the rest of the night talking to Governor Wallace’s people and the county people and the city people, all of whom were out there beyond the bridge barricaded across the road.
GRIFFIN: And you were right in the middle of it.
COLLINS: And then the next morning I told Dr. King, I said, “I tell you, I’m going to be, when you come across that bridge now I’m going to be standing right there with those troops. It’s not that I’m on their side but I want to be there so that if one of them moves into you I’ll grab him. I’ll sure personally grab him. I don’t know what I’ll do with him after I get him, but I’ll sure try. Ill stop him for a while.”
It was a momentous occasion and very terrifying to think of what might happen but the troops finally got word from Governor Wallace and the city people agreed end the county people agreed that if they’d come they would allow just what I had proposed that they do. If they would go back and then wait for the court order. So they came and they went back and then in a while, in just a few days, Judge Johnson ruled that they were no longer under an injunction.
Then I had the problem, our service had the problem, of going with the march. We went ahead of them to find out what roads they should go through to get around a certain town, the route they should take. We were working in liaison with the municipal authorities and the county authorities and all, and the marchers. I was not actually a part of the march but for a good deal of that time I was walking along with Dr. King telling him what they were going to do down the road and working out things, you know, so that we’d understand everything.
We got to Montgomery and I was able to try to see my way home. It was about midnight. That day these pictures had come out all over my hometown newspapers with me right there talking away with Dr. King at the march. I got my wife on the telephone and she said, “What on earth are you up to out there?” I said, “Well, we were just doing our job.” She said, “Well, these papers have got all these pictures in them and the people are calling me. ‘What’s Roy up to? What’s Roy doing, running the march?'” I said, “Well, I’m ready to come home. I’ve got a private jet here the government owns. Well be in there about twelve-thirty to one o’clock. I want you to be sure to come out there and get me ’cause there won’t be any taxis or anything like that I can catch at that time of the morning.” She says, “I can’t come.” I say, “Why can’t you come?” She said, “I’ve got grandchildren in the house here. I can’t go off and leave them. They’re spending the night here with me. I just can’t get them up out of bed and come out there.” I said, “Well, how on earth am I going to home?” She said, “March!”