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Politicians can learn lesson from LeRoy Collins balance of public, private speech

Thanks to Vladimir Putin‘s hackers and his outlets in the American press, we know that Hillary Clinton said different things in public and in private.

Imagine that.

But I suspect that you couldn’t find very many politicians (or other people, for that matter) who don’t speak differently depending on who’s listening. Money could safely be wagered that what legislators say to their spouses about guns, abortion and the death penalty does not necessarily reflect how they vote.

Some politicians are two-faced by nature, but with most, it’s more often a wise choice to not get so far out in front of the people that they can no longer see or follow.

Florida Governor LeRoy Collins (1955-61) often cautioned his staff in those words.

Had he spoken of some things in public as he did to some close friends, spiritual advisers and trusted aides, he would be remembered not as Florida’s greatest governor but as a failure who was voted out after serving only the last two years of a deceased predecessor’s term.

Sometime in 1956, most likely during his difficult campaign for a four-year term, Collins or someone on his staff put to paper words that could guarantee his defeat.

“I do not contend,” the document said, “that segregation in public schools or at public meetings or on public conveyances is consistent as a matter of principle with Christianity or the basic American belief in equality before the law…

“But the end of segregation, if and when it comes . . . can only come when its acceptance is developed in the hearts and minds of the people.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s “great power,” it said, “those hearts and minds are beyond its reach and control.”

Collins, or perhaps an aide who drafted it at his request, also wrote that the South should be “ashamed” of neglecting the health, education, and opportunity of its black citizens.”

The document eventually went to the state archives with a penciled notation, doubly underlined “not issued.”

Florida then was as firmly segregationist as Alabama, Georgia or Mississippi. Unlike their bombastic governors, Collins refused to resort to demagoguery. He pledged to maintain school segregation only by peaceful means and could boast that the strategy was working.

But he had three serious challengers for the Democratic nomination, including a former governor, who accused him of being soft on segregation if not actually against it. The most strident was Sumter Lowry, a retired National Guard general who talked about nothing else and came very close to forcing Collins into a runoff he likely would have lost.

A close friend who had been traveling through North Florida warned him that he could lose the election if he did not throw more red meat to the racists.

“I don’t have to be re-elected,” he replied, “but I do have to live with myself.”

The political establishment was in a panic over a U.S. Supreme Court decree ordering — ineffectively, as it turned out — the long-delayed admission of a black applicant to the University of Florida law school. Although it pertained only to graduate study, it prompted Collins to call a post-primary special session to pass a set of laws, including a pupil assignment scheme, that were intended to keep grades K-12 firmly segregated.

Collins was deeply conflicted. Like most Southerners of his day, he had been raised with faith in segregation that was as implicit and unquestioning as his religion. He was, however, a fundamentally decent man. As a state senator, he had passed a bill to unmask the Ku Klux Klan. As the times were changing, so was he.

His second inauguration, in January 1957, took place during a contentious bus boycott in Tallahassee. He told the audience that Florida would maintain school segregation “for the foreseeable future.” But he also made it plain that Florida would eventually have to yield to the U.S. Supreme Court. To defy it would be “little short of rebellion and anarchy.” He also said he didn’t think that most whites objected to non-segregated seating in buses.

In March 1960, there were lunch counter sit-ins across the state and threats of violence against the demonstrators. Collins went on statewide television to denounce segregation, in effect, as un-Christian, un-democratic and unrealistic. Few white Floridians had heard even their clergy say such things.

By then, of course, Collins was a lame duck, barred by the Constitution from running again. After a short tenure as president of the National Association of Broadcasters, where he wore out his welcome denouncing cigarette advertising to children, he accepted President Lyndon Johnson‘s offer to head the Community Relations Service, a conciliation agency established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That duty took him to Selma, where his successful peacemaking between Alabama forces and civil rights demonstrators contributed to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and put an effective end to his political career. He was defeated in his last race, for the U.S. Senate, in 1968.

His career would have ended 12 years earlier had he made public how his views on segregation were changing.

History abounds with other examples. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that the United States would eventually be at war with the German and Japanese tyrannies, but he had to speak and act cautiously because the Congress and public were isolationist.

Lyndon Johnson became the great champion of civil rights after participating in Senate filibusters against them.

As for Clinton, there wasn’t anything terribly startling in the hacked emails that seemed to suggest a softer line on regulation than she was saying to the public. Did she promise Wall Street a veto? No. Did she retract what she was saying in public? No. She simply threw the insiders some flattery: “the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.” She promised only to hear them. The Associated Press report that hyped the remark belonged on the editorial pages rather than in the news sections.

Let’s just hope the press will be as tough on Donald Trump‘s apparent inconsistencies as they were on hers. Those income tax returns are a good place to start.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. This column is based in part on his book, “Floridian of his Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins,” published by the University Press of Florida in 2006.

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