Governor for a Day

What would you do if you were Governor of Florida for a day? Attend a Cabinet meeting, check in on some state agencies, have a brainstorming session with a few state officials? One Fort Lauderdale youth had the opportunity to do just that back in 1962 during the administration of Governor Farris Bryant. It all started when Rita Mae Brown wrote to the Governor asking if she could shadow him as part of a “Senior Work Day,” in which she and her classmates were to be “hired” by local businesses for a day to learn about various careers.

Governor Farris Bryant at his desk (circa 1960s).

Governor Farris Bryant at his desk (circa 1960s).

Governor Bryant wrote back and said that this would be impossible, not because he didn’t like the idea, but because he would be in Japan at the time Rita proposed to come. Bryant suggested she come to Tallahassee anyway and serve as his stand-in.

And so she did. Rita Brown, 17, packed her bags and took her first airplane ride to Tallahassee that April to take her place as Governor for a day.  She met with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey, who took her to the Executive Office of the Governor for a chance to sit at Farris Bryant’s desk and be photographed by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Frank Noel of the Associated Press.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey and high school student Rita Brown in the office of Governor Farris Bryant (1962).

Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey and high school student Rita Brown in the office of Governor Farris Bryant (1962).

Bailey then escorted young Rita to a Cabinet meeting, where she caught up on the latest discussions on stone crab conservation and the fate of Forman Field down in Fort Lauderdale. She toured the Florida Development Commission and the State Road Department, including its “vast array of IBM machines,” as Rita later put it.

Rita’s “term” as Governor of Florida was short, but she made a full report to Governor Farris Bryant after she returned home. We recently found it in Bryant’s administrative correspondence (Series 756), which is held by the State Archives of Florida. Here’s an excerpt (check out that signature line!):

Excerpt from a letter to Governor Farris Bryant by Rita Mae Brown, April 25, 1962, in Box 52, folder 6, Farris Bryant Administrative Correspondence (Series 756, State Archives of Florida).

Excerpt from a letter to Governor Farris Bryant by Rita Mae Brown, April 25, 1962, in Box 52, folder 6, Farris Bryant Administrative Correspondence (Series 756, State Archives of Florida).

Rita took her brief time as Florida’s chief executive quite seriously. In her report, she proposed a program to help keep bright young Floridians in their own state instead of going to look for work and education elsewhere. In his reply, Governor Bryant suggested she contact Superintendent Bailey with her ideas. This she did, outlining what she called her “Sell Florida” campaign:

Excerpts from a letter by Rita Mae Brown to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey, July 7, 1962, in Box 4, Thomas D. Bailey Subject Files (Series 1127, State Archives of Florida).

Excerpts from a letter by Rita Mae Brown to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey, July 7, 1962, in Box 4, Thomas D. Bailey Subject Files (Series 1127, State Archives of Florida).

Bailey liked the idea, and distributed it to the presidents of Florida’s institutions of higher learning, the Florida Development Commission, and other state agencies. Rita herself went on to become a prominent civil rights activist and later an accomplished Emmy-nominated writer. In a way, you could say that both the State of Florida and Rita herself got a lot out of that one day governorship. Makes you wonder what a little mentoring might do for an eager young person in your own life, doesn’t it?

The State Library & Archives holds the keys to many interesting stories like that of young Rita Mae Brown. We encourage you to explore Florida Memory and browse our catalogs at info.florida.gov to learn more.

 

LeRoy Collins and the Brown Decision

Saturday, May 17th marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark decision of the United State Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The unanimous ruling overturned the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which had served as the legal basis for Jim Crow segregation in public facilities across the South, especially in the public schools. The court argued that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and that African American children attending segregated schools were deprived of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Headline from the Tallahassee Democrat reporting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown case (May 17, 1954).

Most elected officials in Florida, as in other Southern states, recoiled from the Supreme Court’s decision and explored their options for keeping Jim Crow firmly in place. The state first responded by asking the Supreme Court to stay its ruling while it studied the potential effects of desegregation with the help of social scientists.

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at "The Grove" in Tallahassee. "The Grove," built around 1840 by Florida's territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins in his library at “The Grove” in Tallahassee. “The Grove,” built around 1840 by Florida’s territorial governor Richard Keith Call, is currently being restored and repurposed as a museum by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources (1954).

Governor LeRoy Collins, who took office in January 1955, faced a difficult situation. On the one hand, he recognized that extremism on the segregation issue could cost Florida in terms of tourism and business growth. On the other hand, state legislators favoring complete retention of Jim Crow without compromise were powerful and vocal. Collins attempted to chart a middle course that would preserve school segregation while also retaining Florida’s image as a progressive state. In 1957, he asked the Legislature to approve a committee on race relations that would help maintain domestic order and improve living standards for African Americans. Florida lawmakers responded by passing a resolution alleging that the U.S. Supreme Court had overstepped its mandate in ruling school segregation illegal. The resolution called on the State (in essence, Collins) to “interpose its powers between its people and the effort of the said Court to assert an unlawful dominion over them.” The full text of the resolution is available as part of our Significant Documents exhibit.

First page of the Florida Legislature's

First page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution (May 1957).

Collins was infuriated by the measure because it was exactly the kind of extreme reaction he feared would hurt Florida in the long run. Because the legislation was merely a resolution and not a bill designed to become law, the governor could not veto it. He did, however, have the opportunity to sign the resolution when it came to his office as a matter of procedure. In place of his signature, Collins filled the middle of the page with a lengthy and dramatic protest against the resolution, calling it an “evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria.”

The final page of the Florida Legislature's

The final page of the Florida Legislature’s “interposition” resolution, with Governor Collins’ protest written around the space for his signature (May 1957).

The full text of Governor Collins’ statement:

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.

Although Collins’ statement captured a great deal of attention, the Legislature was unmoved. In the same session, it passed a law allowing schools to be closed in the event the federal government used force to desegregate them. Florida’s public schools remained almost completely segregated until after 1960.
Teachers, for information on how to use the resources of Florida Memory pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement in your classroom, visit our Black History Month resource page and the Civil Rights Movement in Florida learning unit.