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Tallahassee Democrat: Rick Edmonds: LeRoy Collins left a legacy of change and leadership

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

It has been nearly 80 years since LeRoy Collins was first elected to public service, starting on a road to the governorship of Florida, but his legacy of political courage and visionary leadership are as relevant today as ever.Collins loved this state, embraced politics with gusto and always found ways to seed ideas that might take decades to grow into a more prosaic legislative agenda. He served as a model for a generation of reform legislators and proactive Florida governors

Collins was a consistent advocate of education. As a legislator, he was an early champion of more equal funding for elementary and secondary schools. As governor, he had the idea that every Floridian should have an accessible institution of higher education close to home, an initiative that eventually blossomed into the state’s widely admired system of 28 community colleges.

During his six years as governor (1955-1960), he tackled issues ranging from public meeting requirements to stricter statewide building codes that would prevent hurricane damage and protect Floridians. These forward-thinking ideas — along with his energetic advocacy for redistricting and a modernized state constitution — all became reality, but years after he had left office.

Soon after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, Collins faced the prospect of massive resistance to integration. He promoted a gradualist approach, using his powers of persuasion to maintain order and seizing opportunities to move forward as they presented themselves. Early in his term, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed school districts to shut down schools to avoid admitting black students.Later in his tenure, Collins adopted a more proactive approach to the backlash against desegregation. In a surprising statewide television broadcast, he addressed those claiming racial tensions could be eliminated if African-Americans would “just stay in their place” with these words: “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.” Collins’ deft action and advocacy were recognized nationally and inspired many Southern governors to promote gradual transitions in their states, as well.

The last years of Collins’ governorship, and the eight years that followed, were marked by his increasingly outspoken support of racial justice. As a federal mediator during the potentially violent 1965 March on Selma, he was photographed on the Edmund Pettis Bridge with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. That photograph, and his progressivism on race, caused him to lose the 1968 race for U.S. Senate. At the age of 59, he had forfeited his chance to continue to serve in elected office. Nonetheless, Collins stayed active in public service during his 20 years of retirement, advising legislators and governors, writing and serving on the 1968 Constitutional Revision Commission.

Were his record not enough, Collins had a well thought-through idea of what it takes for a politician to be successful: “The qualities that, to me, are of the most importance in judging a political leader,” Collins wrote, “are his integrity (faithfulness to the public interest in all actions he takes), his ability to make tough decisions, his administrative competence to get his decisions implemented and his style or charisma.”

To honor this great Floridian, the LeRoy Collins Institute seeks to continue Collins’ legacy with thought-provoking research and insightful solutions for Florida’s policy challenges. In 2005, the institute released its first “Tough Choices” report, a book-length study of revenue prospects and the demand for state-funded services. More recently, the institute has produced research reports on the state’s municipal pension plans and ethics regulations.

The Institute’s board and its work are bipartisan. As Gov. Collins said at the 1988 announcement of its founding, “This ought to be a means of proceeding to distinguishing what’s right rather than who’s right.”

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the LeRoy Collins Institute, and in keeping with his forward-thinking style, the “Tough Choices” report series will be updated to address the new challenges that our state is facing, allowing the Institute to develop innovative solutions based on the latest academic research and data. Thursday, a symposium honoring Collins’ legacy and how it can continue to inform Florida’s future will be held at Florida State University. It will bring together minds from across the state to reflect on Gov. Collins’ forward-thinking governing style and how we can apply his vision to today’s challenges.

Whether during his time serving in elected office, or after, Gov. Collins championed the idea that governing was about creating opportunities and meeting challenges. After all, in Collins’ own words, “Government remains the one vehicle through which all the people can work together to accomplish goals which they, as individuals and through private enterprise and resource, are unable to achieve.”

Rick Edmonds is a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. He is a former editor of Florida Trend and the Florida Humanities Council’s Forum magazine. He is on the board the board of the LeRoy Collins Institute (

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