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LeRoy Collins, Trent Lott: a study in contrasts

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Trent Lott professed that he meant only to flatter a very old man when he remarked that the nation would not have had "all these problems over all these years" if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. As the Dixiecrats' drum beat the single note of segregation, it is difficult to imagine what else might have inspired Lott's nostalgia. Moreover, it was not the first time he had said it.

It is almost as hard, however, to imagine how this country -- or at least a large part of it -- could have functioned the last half-century if all ex-segs had been sent into political exile. Sen. Robert W. Byrd and the late, great Justice Hugo Black, to name two, had even belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. So the question is whether Lott's repentance was sincere, as he insisted, or more in the nature of a jailhouse confession.

The answer is perhaps to be found in a comparison of his career with that of LeRoy Collins, Florida's governor from 1955 through 1960. Though Collins is accurately remembered as a clarion voice for civil rights, he was elected as a segregationist who regarded the practice as "a part and parcel of our way of life."

Indeed, it was. Though Collins and Lott were born in different states 32 years apart, both came to maturity in a society where it was as unthinkable to question segregation as to doubt the existence of God.

As a young legislator from Tallahassee, Collins voted against repealing Florida's poll tax as a condition for voting. But he also fought for a law to unmask the Ku Klux Klan, and used that issue to effect in his 1954 campaign against acting Gov. Charlie Johns, who had sided with the KKK.

The Supreme Court's school desegregation decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, came a week before the Democratic runoff primary that would anoint the next governor.

"I favor segregation in our public schools," Collins responded. "It is a part of Florida's custom and law. I will use all the lawful power of the governor's office to preserve this custom and law . . ."

Indeed, he did. But for a few token exceptions, Florida's public schools and universities remained segregated long after Tennessee, Maryland and other states on the southern periphery had integrated many of theirs. Though Collins defeated five strident segregationists to be re-elected in 1956, that campaign inflamed the issue to a dangerous degree.

Throughout, Collins' greatest problem was to fend off radicals who would rather close the schools than let them be integrated. The Legislature passed a "last resort" bill in 1957. The House of Representatives sustained his veto.

But one can search Collins' speeches and statements (as I have been doing in research for a biography) without finding any instance where he depicted segregation as a virtue. Rather, he extolled it legalistically, in the sense that he had sworn to Floridians to uphold it. He feared violence if the federal courts compelled Florida to surrender abruptly; though disputing the Supreme Court's wisdom, he defended its authority. He criticized the NAACP and other advocates for forcing the issue. Yet his private doubts were growing and becoming evident.

In his 1957 inaugural address, delivered amidst a Tallahassee bus boycott, he said he believed most whites would not object to open seating in buses. He called also on whites to "face up to the fact that the Negro does not now have equal opportunities; that he is morally and legally entitled to progress more rapidly . . ."

Lunch-counter sit-ins came to Florida three years later. Tension was high. Violence was a clear danger. Appearing on an unprecedented statewide radio and TV hookup, Collins made an unscripted speech in which he said he considered it "unfair and morally wrong" for a merchant to accept Negro customers at one department and not another.

"Now he has a legal right to do that, but I still don't think that he can square that right with moral, simple justice," Collins said.

To those who would say that "all this could be eliminated if the colored people would just stay in their place," Collins admonished, "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."

No southern governor had ever spoken so.

The mail was largely favorable. The arch-segregationist politicians dismissed his call to conscience as a bid for a spot on the 1960 national Democratic ticket.

His reputation as a rare Southern moderate did earn him the chairmanship of the 1960 Democratic national convention, and he would doubtless have welcomed the vice presidency. But it went to Texan Lyndon Johnson, whose state meant more votes. Collins accepted the presidency of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Collins scandalized many of his new patrons by criticizing the quality of rating services and programming and by denouncing tobacco advertising for its appeal to youth. They had seen nothing yet.

Speaking at Columbia, S.C, less than two weeks after President Kennedy's assassination, Collins complained passionately that "for too long we have permitted the South's own worst enemies" -- the extremists -- to speak for it.

"And all the while," he continued, "too many of the rest of us have remained cravenly silent or lamely defensive while Dixie battle cries have been employed to incite sick souls to violence -- egged on by the rabble-rousers' call to 'stand up and fight!'

". . . How long are the majority of Southerners going to allow themselves to be caricatured by these Claghorns? How many Sunday School children have to be dynamited to death? How many Negro leaders have to be shot in the back? How many governors have to be shot in the chest? How many presidents have to be assassinated?

"It is time the decent people in the South, with all their might and strength, told the bloody-shirt-wavers to climb down off the buckboards of bigotry . . ."

Though it wasn't his intent, it was reported that he had blamed the South for Kennedy's assassination. His real purpose, overlooked by many, was to declare racial justice to be "a national commitment and a national necessity . . . an idea that can never be stopped, not by custom, not by prejudice, not by hate, not by murder, not by armies, not by any mortal force."

Collins' transformation was complete. It had been less than nine years since he had been elected as a segregationist, but neither had it been an instant epiphany. His journey had been gradual but steady.

Collins was courting political suicide. If he were to run again in Florida, as he eventually did, the state still wasn't ready for such a racially liberal voice.

Johnson, the new president, drafted him to head the Community Relations Service that had been established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It meant a huge cut in salary and a cloudy political future.

"There was never any doubt in my mind, really," Collins wrote many years later, "but I kept repeating over and over to myself, 'Why me, Lord?,' and the answer I kept getting back was something like 'This is no time for questions like that.' "

But the Lord had not spoken to Thurmond or a handful of other Southern senators who were seething over the "Claghorn" speech. Thurmond gave Collins a hard time at his Senate confirmation hearing. To Thurmond's charge that he had been "inconsistent" on racial issues, Collins replied, "I hope I have grown since I left my mother's knee, and I hope I continue to grow."

As the committee was about to meet to recommend Collins' confirmation, Thurmond literally wrestled another senator to a corridor floor to try to prevent a quorum from assembling. The Senate subsequently confirmed Collins 53-8. Thurmond and seven other Southern senators were the naysayers. Speaking at Birmingham in January 1965, Collins admitted that "over the span of my life I have been quite inconsistent in positions I have taken, both public and private, concerning civil rights and the place of the Negro in our American society." He had, he said, "looked at segregation through the eyes of a man who was raised from a boy on the privileged side of a racially segregated social system." He had even rationalized that "Negroes actually preferred it that way." What had changed, he explained, "was my own understanding and comprehension of what was right."

Less than two months later came the confrontations at Selma between civil rights marchers led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and troopers under the command of Gov. George Wallace. Hoping to prevent the marchers from being beaten a second time, Johnson personally ordered Collins to Selma to try to negotiate a settlement. He worked all night before getting the state's consent to let the marchers go to a point, but no further, pending the outcome of a court case. The march was already under way before Collins could reach King's aides with the proposal. A photograph was taken as he walked along, explaining it to them. The picture, widely printed in Florida, made it appear that he had been marching in support of the demonstrators. He had averted violence and most likely saved lives. But the moment proved fatal to his career.

Collins ran in 1968 to succeed Florida's retiring junior senator, George Smathers. Selma became an issue that nearly denied him the Democratic nomination. Weakened politically and financially by a bitter runoff with Atty. Gen. Earl Faircloth, Collins never had a chance against Ed Gurney, a congressman who became the first Republican Florida voters would send to the Senate. Gurney capitalized also on the riots that had followed King's murder and the disturbances at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

"My opponents . . . just kept pounding away at me for being a 'liberal' and classifying themselves as being 'conservatives,' " Collins wrote 10 years later. "They would say, 'He was at Selma,' and leave it to me to explain what I was doing there."

Gurney's victory marked an early and conspicuous success for what came to be known as the "Southern strategy" that also elected Richard Nixon and began the Republican Party's swift climb to power throughout the South. In a word, the strategy was race.

This is why the Senate Republicans had to dump Lott as their leader. He had become a lightning rod for that disconcerting history. It had to please the Democrats that it was such a long-running story.

Collins never ran for office again. On the day of his death in 1991, however, the Florida House eulogized him as the "Floridian of the century."

The year that ended his political career saw the beginning of Lott's, as an aide to the racist Mississippi congressman he would succeed in 1972. While Collins had been speaking ever more forcefully for civil rights, in the early '60s, Lott had been helping to lead Southern opposition to the integration of his fraternity. As recently as a few years ago, he was mixed up with the openly racist Council of Conservative Citizens.

Until now, no one ever had reason to question Lott's consistency.

With the majority leadership at stake, Lott confessed his own "misbehavior," recanted his vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and even declared himself to be in favor of affirmative action. It will be fun to watch how that plays in Mississippi.

Like Collins, he described his conversion as "evolutionary."

But who would have known it?

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