Thomas LeRoy Collins (March 10, 1909–March 12, 1991) was the 33rd Governor of Florida.
Collins was born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, where he attended Leon High School. He went on to attend the Eastman Business College in New York and then went on to the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama to receive a law degree. In 1932, he married Mary Call Darby, great-granddaughter of Richard K. Call, twice territorial governor of Florida.
His entry into public service began in 1934, when he was elected as Leon County's representative in the Florida House of Representatives. He continued to serve in the House until 1940, when he was elected to the Florida Senate to fill an unexpired term of the late William Hodges.
In 1941, he purchased the home built by Richard K. Call in Tallahassee, "The Grove," located across the street north of the Governor's Mansion. Collins was re-elected to the Senate in 1942, but resigned to fight in the United States Navy during World War II. After the war, he was elected once again to the Florida Senate in 1946. He was reelected in 1950, serving until 1954 when a special election was held to fill the remaining two years in the term of Governor Daniel T. McCarty, who had died in office in 1953.
Collins twice received title of "Most Valuable Senator" (the first time in 1947 by the Capital Press Corps and in 1953 by fellow lawmakers).
Governor McCarty died just nine months after accession to the office on September 28, 1953 after suffering a debilitating heart attack on February 25. At that time, Florida had no lieutenant governor, and the president of the Florida Senate, Charley Eugene Johns, became acting governor to serve until a special election.
Collins challenged Johns in the Democratic primary election and won the nomination; due to dominance of the Democratic Party in the South at the time, a primary win nearly guaranteed victory in the general election. Collins was sworn in as governor on January 4, 1955. In 1956, he was reelected to serve a regular four-year term, which made him the first governor of Florida to serve two consecutive terms.
In the 1956 election, he made history by becoming the first governor to win election in the first primary election, defeating five other candidates. During his term, Collins focused on education, working to strengthen the state's school system. In the racial unrest of his time he took a moderate course, counseling progress under law, and the state experienced only minimal disorder.
Although he initially condemned the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as did almost all Southern elected officials, he fought with the Florida Legislature to attempt to prevent them from passing an "interposition" resolution, which indicated the intent of the legislature to "interpose" itself between the citizens of Florida and the United States government to prevent what the legislature contended was an illegal intrusion upon the right of the state by imposing integration.
He utilized a little-known provision of the state constitution by unilaterally adjourning the legislature to prevent it from passing the resolution the first time. After the legislature returned and passed the resolution, he had no power to veto it, because it was not a law but only a resolution expressing the sense of the legislature.
However, as it passed through his office, he wrote upon the interposition resolution, the following statement, in his own handwriting, which is today held by the State Archives of Florida:
“ "This concurrent resolution of 'Interposition' crosses the Governor's desk as a matter of routine. I have no authority to veto it. I take this means however to advise the student of government, who may examine this document in the archives of the state in the years to come that the Governor of Florida expressed open and vigorous opposition thereto. I feel that the U. S. Supreme Court has improperly usurped powers reserved to the states under the constitution. I have joined in protesting such and in seeking legal means of avoidance. But if this resolution declaring the decisions of the court to be 'null and void' is to be taken seriously, it is anarchy and rebellion against the nation which must remain 'indivisible under God' if it is to survive. Not only will I not condone 'interposition' as so many have sought me to do, 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. If history judges me right this day, I want it known that I did my best to avert this blot. If I am judged wrong, then here in my own handwriting and over my signature is the proof of guilt to support my conviction. LeRoy Collins, Governor." May 2, 1957. ”
Collins became Chairman of the Southern Governors Association in 1957.
Collins fell just a few votes short of persuading the first Constitution Revision Commission to send an amendment to voters to abolish capital punishment. He recalled about his proposal to end the death penalty in Florida that every time an execution was carried out under his order, it left him feeling nearly as guilty as the murderers. It is noteworthy that his two immediate successors, C. Farris Bryant and Haydon Burns, also opposed the death penalty.
Presidential and Vice Presidential possibilities
During the 1956 Democratic National Convention Collins was among contenders for the Vice Presidential nomination, when presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson II allowed the convention to chose his running-mate. Collins received 29 votes on the first ballot.
Before the 1960 presidential election Collins was seriously considered as a possible candidate because of his popularity as a southern Governor, who was acceptable to Northern liberals because of his support for civil rights. However, he did not seek the nomination, even in the Florida primary, which went to favorite son candidate Senator George Smathers.
Chairman of the 1960 Democratic National Convention
Collins served as a chairman of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which nominated Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts for President and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas for Vice President.
Upon completion of six years as governor, he became president of the National Association of Broadcasters. He resigned this at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson to become the first Director of the Community Relations Service under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Also by Presidential appointment, he became Under Secretary of Commerce on July 7, 1965. He resigned this position effective October 1, 1966 to return to Florida and become a partner in a Tampa law firm.
He was successful in obtaining the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in the primary elections of 1968 but was defeated in the general election. In the general election campaign against Edward Gurney, a photograph of Collins walking alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Selma march was widely distributed to Florida voters by Gurney's supporters. The photograph contained no caption or other explanation of what Collins was doing in Selma leaving that open to the imagination of the voter. In fact, Collins had not been participating the march, but was shuttling back and forth between the marchers and the Alabama authorities to attempt to craft a compromise which would avoid violence. He conducted these negotiations as a part of his job as head of the Community Relations Service. He was successful in these negotiations as violence was averted when the marchers crossed the bridge, prayed, and then returned back to the other side.
A death penalty opponent, Collins participated in a protest against execution of John Spenkelink in 1979: the first post-Furman involuntary execution in the U.S. and first in Florida since 1964, outside gubernatorial mansion he once occupied (then-Governor Bob Graham let the execution proceed).
After his defeat, he left his law firm in Tampa and returned to "The Grove" in Tallahassee until his death from cancer in 1991. He was called the greatest Governor that Florida ever had many times by Florida governors Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, and Jeb Bush. A tribute was entered in the official record of the United States House of Representatives on March 19, 1991 by Florida Representatives James Bacchus and Charles E. Bennett.
His son, LeRoy Collins, Jr., a retired United States Navy rear admiral, unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for United States Senate from Florida in 2006, losing to Congresswoman Katherine Harris, who was in turn defeated by Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.