Former Governor Leroy Collins mediating during the civil rights march in Selma, AL with Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young and Robert Abernathy.

Selma and the Transformation of a Segregationist

On March 7th, President Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first march on Selma that resulted in a bloody clash between civil rights marchers and segregationists. The march, organized by James Bevel and Amelia Boynton, resulted in what is sometimes referred to as “Bloody Sunday” after the 600 marchers were attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge upon departing Selma. A posse of 200 state troopers led by hard line segregationist of Dallas County Alabama, Sheriff Jim Clark, attacked the unarmed marchers with electric cattle prods, clubs and tear gas. Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious and the national media captured the horror of the massacre. The televised footage and national media attention helped to change the balance in America’s treatment of civil rights as it spurred nationwide support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act that was signed into law on August, 6, 1965. This federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting and was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. The law was designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Dr. King and his followers did eventually march from Selma to Montgomery after receiving a restraining order from a Federal court protecting the marchers from state authorities. This gave them safe access to cross the bridge and complete the historic 50-mile march. The march concluded on March 25, 1965 at the Montgomery capitol steps where King delivered one of his most impassioned speeches to some 25,000 civil rights supporters.

To mark the 50 year anniversary of the Selma marches, the much anticipated film Selma opened in theaters across the country at the beginning of 2015. It chronicles Dr. King’s journey from accepting the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo all the way up to his historic march from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL 50-years ago.

The purpose of this post is not to recount the historical inaccuracies of this film as they are numerous. One of the best posts I've read on this subject comes from Dr. Adolph Reed (University of Pennsylvania) in his post The Real Problem with Selma.

However prior to seeing the movie, I was very interested to see how one of my ancestors would be portrayed in Selma. My father’s second cousin was Governor LeRoy Collins of Florida, the state’s 15th governor. Collins is considered one of the greatest governors in Florida’s history. Collins was a “southern democrat” with a moderate to centrist political perspective and a progressive attitude toward growing Florida as a business hub. Collins is considered not only a role model for leaders that came after him like Senator Bob Graham and Governor Ruben Askew, but Republican leaders like Jeb Bush have characterized Collins as Florida’s greatest governor.

In 1954, Collins took office after Governor McCarty died 9-months into his term. While his election in 1954 was a difficult one, his re-election in 1956 was an easier task. When Collins took office in 1954, the Brown v Board of Education school desegregation decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. This decision was all but ignored by most Southern states. In his early years, Collins maintained support for the segregationist movement. As he said in a 1984 speech at Florida A&M University, “Born here in Tallahassee, I was accustomed early to a segregated society. I made statements that aligned me with the conditions and majority thinking of the time.”

While Collins wanted to focus on growing Florida business interests and advance his progressive agenda, the turmoil of racial unrest in the South continued to hamper his ambitions. The issue of race needed to be dealt with head-on and Collins was forced to consider his own outdated segregationist views.

Collins’ gradual migration from his segregationist views to a more integrated way of thinking needed to be carefully timed if he were to remain a strong leader in the South. He vetoed a law in the state house that would have allowed school districts to close schools rather than admit African Americans. In 1957, the Florida legislature passed an interposition resolution that Collins was unable to veto. Outraged, Collins sent a memo to President Eisenhower and other federal officials saying “I decry it as an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice and hysteria.”

By March of 1960, lunch counter sit-ins had spread to Florida, and violent clashes often erupted. Collins, in what seemed like the beginning of a shift in his segregationist views, gave a state wide television broadcast stating simply that African-Americans had a right to be served. To those who claim that “colored people should stay in their place,” Collins countered, “Now, friends, that’s not a Christian point of view. That’s not a democratic point of view. That’s not a realistic point of view. We can never stop Americans from struggling to be free.”

In 1960, Collins’ unsuccessful bid for re-election was largely based on his progressive views about racial equality. He became the Permanent Chairman of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that same year. Collins was a strong contender for the U.S. Vice-Presidency but he supported Adlai Stevenson instead of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy ultimately chose Lyndon Johnson to be his running mate.

Governor LeRoy Collins with John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Sam Rayburn, Hubert H. Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson at the Democratic National Convention in 1960.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson chose Collins as the first Director of the Community Relations Service. Collins once again found himself at the center of race relations as he was responsible for resolving civil rights conflicts in a peaceful manner.

This leads us back to Selma. Bloody Sunday was the first of three marches in Selma that year. Remember that Martin Luther King did not take part in the Sunday march, as a matter of fact he wasn't in Selma at the time. He was at his home in Atlanta. King went back to Selma on Monday upon the news of the massacre to plan for a second march. This time he planned to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery to protest Alabama’s unfair voting practices.

President Johnson was told by his aid, Marvin Watson, that a second march was being planned and that King could be persuaded to call off the march if meaningful federal legislation on voting rights were passed. Johnson knew that he could not afford a repeat of the brutality that was broadcast to the world the previous Sunday. Johnson sent Collins to Selma to mediate a deal between King and Wallace. Collins, along with Assistant Attorney General John Doer, urged King to postpone the march and wait for a federal court order that would ensure he and the marchers protection to travel from Selma to Montgomery. But King insisted that he needed to move forward and suggested to Collins that he meet with Sheriff Clark to persuade him to not use violence against the marchers as they were simply exercising their first amendment right. Collins then suggested to King that maybe a symbolic march to the top of the Edmund Pettus bridge for a prayer vigil in memory of those harmed by Sunday’s massacre might be more appropriate. Once the vigil is concluded, the marchers can then return to their church unharmed. King then asked Collins to get assurances from Sheriff Clark and ultimately from governor Wallace that if the marchers turned around after the vigil that they would be unharmed.

On March 9th, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Robert Abernathy and hundreds of other civil rights activists and supporters peacefully ascended to the top of the Edmund Pettus bridge. King came within 50-yards of the blockade where he announced his intentions to hold a prayer vigil. King led the marchers to the top of the bridge he and other dignitaries recited various homilies while Collins and other government officials stood by nervously. The troopers and posse that had previously been blocking the bridge retreated, and let King and his followers go back across the bridge peacefully. Collins later wrote “I have never before or since felt the relief I did when that great mass of people turned and retraced their steps over that bridge. Both sides had kept their word to the letter”.

Former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins with President Lyndon B. Johnson

On March 15th, President Lyndon Johnson, whose administration had been working on a voting rights law, held a televised joint session of Congress to ask for the voting rights bill’s introduction and passage. When Governor Wallace refused to protect the marchers on their third attempt to reach Montgomery, President Johnson committed 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, and many FBI agents and Federal Marshals to protect the marchers. They averaged 10 miles a day reaching Montgomery on March 24 and proceeded to the Alabama State Capitol on March 25. Thousands of activists had joined the campaign along the way and 25,000 people entered the capital city that day in support of voting rights.

In terms of Selma the movie, Director Ava Duvaey certainly took some artistic license in bending some of the historical truths to ensure that she didn't turn one of these Federal officials into a “white savior” (using her words). This historical criticism was primarily attributed to the numerous inaccuracies of how President Johnson was portrayed as reluctantly supporting voting rights laws as opposed to being a champion of them.

But the cinematography and performance by lead actor David Oyelowo who did a masterful job portraying King was simply moving. Oyelowo’s re-enactment of King’s March 25th address at the conclusion of the march in Montgomery was riveting. But Governor Collins involvement to help avert another massacre in Selma on March 9th was not mentioned in the movie whatsoever. While this historical slight could be passed off as a triviality, the movie depicts Assistant Attorney General John Doar as the sole mediator prior to the second march.

The truth is Collins involvement in Selma cost him his political career. The photo at the top of this post depicts Governor Collins talking to Andrew Young during the march, along with Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King and Robert Abernathy. This photo was circulated widely by Republicans and segregationist politicians in the South. In 1966, Collins was defeated by Ed Gurney for US Senate, upon the circulation of this photo, giving Florida its first Republican Senator since the Reconstruction era. Gurney received 55.9 percent of the vote to Collins’ 44.1 percent. Many supporters of third-party presidential candidate George C. Wallace supported Gurney and an estimated half of the registered Democrats in the state voted for him.

In his own words Gov. Collins said “All politicians have, during the course of their political careers the equivalent of a political bank account, political capital if you will. During their careers, politicians make deposits…in the form of doing things that are popular, that people will like, so the people will reward the politicians with popularity. There is nothing wrong with this…But if politicians are truly leaders, they also will be willing to make withdrawals from their political bank accounts. Withdrawals of political capital are much more difficult, costly and sometimes politically fatal.” In terms of the mood of the nation in the mid-1960s, Collins political bank account with the voters of Florida was running a deficit.

Observers say that Collins had become more outspoken on racial matters during his eight years out of office and was now well ahead of the typical Floridian on civil rights. Even though Collins was still in his late 50's, his chances of being elected to office were over.

Critics like Anders Walker in his book The Ghost of Jim Crow argue that moderates like Collins did more harm to advance racial equality than good using political tactics to stall civil rights. Segregationists like Governor Wallace and Sheriff Jim Clark who used violence and repression to maintain Jim Crow made the headlines and evoked action by activists nationwide in support of civil right reforms. Walker is accurate in his assertions that Collins used a number of legal and political tools to uphold segregation and thus stall Brown v Board of Education in Florida. Collins does admit to his segregationist upbringing and traditions. But by 1968 he was seen by a majority of the voters in Florida as too liberal and too outspoken on civil rights. Was Gov Collins purpose in Selma and other civil rights related initiatives a way to undermine the movement through passive resistance by placating civil rights leaders through political obstruction and a false sense of cooperation? Or was Collins truly a reformed segregationist who should be lauded for his efforts to help bolster the movement through civil and public discourse? The bigger question was whether Gov Collins knew the risks inherent in becoming active in the civil rights movement and as such was willing to put his changing ideals on display or was he simply trying get in the limelight and had no idea that he would be risking future political aspirations?

While these questions can’t be answered definitively, it is worth noting the legacy that role models like Collins have left for all of us that grew up in the South during the 60s and 70s. My father was born and raised in Tallahassee, FL. As a child he played hide and seek at The Grove, the house that Gov Collins and his wife Mary Call and children lived. The Grove is next door to the governor’s mansion. My father had many fond memories of Gov Collins and his family while growing up. I had never heard my father utter a racist comment. Color simply didn’t seem to matter. So I found it difficult when growing up to hear racial jokes and to fit in by “going along” with it. My wife and I have tried our best to pass these same ideals of racial equality down to our children. We aren’t perfect. But if we can continue to evolve and grow as “one nation under God” we should be able to improve one generation at a time.

I wish we were looking back at the tensions of the Civil Rights movement as a thing of the past and something that our national consciousness had moved beyond. Unfortunately with events like Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD where racial tensions and civil injustices still plague our country, we are reminded that we have a long way to go in truly creating an integrated society where everyone is treated equally regardless of the color of their skin.