Thomas LeRoy Collins Biography

Thomas LeRoy Collins

former governor of Florida
Born: March 10, 1909
Birthplace: Tallahassee, Florida

Thomas LeRoy Collins grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., and received his law degree from Cumberland University in Tennessee. In 1934, when he was 25, Collins was elected to the Florida House of Representatives as a Democrat. He then served as a Florida State Senator and in 1954 he became Florida's governor, elected to finish out the term of Dan McCarty, who died in office. Collins was reelected in 1956, becoming the first governor of Florida to be reelected to a consecutive term. His tenure as governor coincided with the stirrings of the civil rights movement and growing racial unrest. Although Collins began his career as a segregationist, his views began to change as governor. When the Supreme Court called for desegregation of public schools in 1954, Collins, unlike several other Southern governors, insisted that the courts be obeyed.

After his two terms as governor, he went on to become the president of the National Association of Broadcasters (1961–1964). He was then appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as the director of Community Relations Services (1964). His credentials as a white Southern politician and a moderate on civil rights issues made him ideal for this position: he served as a negotiator for the federal government on civil rights laws. At the famous civil rights march in Selma, Ala., he helped ease tensions between hostile white Southerners and black civil rights marchers, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. His role led Southern conservatives to label him “liberal LeRoy,” and his support of civil rights is believed to have lost him his 1968 U.S. Senate bid.

Collins also served as chairman of the Democratic National Convention (1960) and as a lawyer in his home town of Tallahasse. He continued to speak out about civil rights, declaring that “it is the moral duty of our generation to plow under racial injustice everywhere in the United States.”

Died: March 12, 1991