Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Floridian of His Century

One of the books assigned for the class Florida Politics Since World War II is Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins.

Collins was elected in 1954 in a special election to fill out the term of Governor Dan McCarty, who died in office of a heart attack.  Collins defeated the "Pork Chop Gang" member Charley Johns, who, as president of the state senate, had become acting governor upon McCarty's death.  The "Pork Chop Gang" was a small clique of North Florida rural senators and representatives who held power out of all proportion to their numbers due to a crying need for reapportionment which had gone unheeded for decades.  A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1967 finally resulted in proper apportionment, which eliminated the power of the "Pork Chop Gang" and provided for more equitable and reasonable representation in Florida.

Collins, born and raised in Tallahassee, was raised in the racist, segregationist tradition of the South.  However, he was blessed with a mind and a conscience, and with the ability to examine his beliefs and values, and to change when change was needed.  And it was needed.

Collins won re-election to a full term in 1956, and through his evolving stand on civil rights, calling discrimination an offense to "moral, simple justice," became probably the greatest governor Florida has yet had.  He wanted to be the one to institute the reapportionment mentioned above, but was thwarted by the "Pork Chop Gang."  He also wanted a constitutional revision to update the existing constitution, which dated from 1885, and which was inadequate to the needs of a rapidly-growing Florida.  He did not succeed in either one.  Reapportionment took a federal Supreme Court decision, as mentioned above, and the constitution was not replaced until 1968.

After his term as governor was up, there being term limits in those days which limited a governor to one term, he went on to serve in other ways.  He was able to have that full term after the first two years in which he filled out McCarty's term because of a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that a governor was entitled to a full term.

I met LeRoy Collins one day in Tallahassee, in 1969, when I was an undergraduate at Florida State University.  Three roommates and I, who had been together in another residence, rented an apartment in an old house which had been broken up into apartments.  Our landlady was LeRoy Collins's mother. She was a genteel, gentle lady with impeccable manners to all.  One day, one of my roommates came up the stairs, having been out, and told us that LeRoy Collins was downstairs.  We all tromped down the stairs with, "Oh, Governor Collins.  It's such an honor to meet you."  He smiled broadly, appearing flattered to be the object of attention from such a gaggle of enthusiastic young women.  He shook hands all around, and talked with us for a while, then we tromped back upstairs to leave him with his mother.  We were on a cloud, having met one of Florida's living heroes.

Anyone wanting to read an engaging biography of an engaging man who was in the right place at the right time at an important juncture in this state's and this nation's history could not do better than to read this book.  More radical people could criticize Collins for not having pushed harder, but he was wise in knowing that pushing too hard could have caused more violence than Florida did experience.  His moral leadership made a difference in a number of ways, not least of which was to inspire my generation in Florida much as John F. Kennedy inspired us across the nation.  The stand that LeRoy Collins did make was bold at the time and in the place in which he made it.

He deserves his place in Florida's history.

No comments:

Post a Comment