|Date(s):||May 26, 1956 to December 31, 1970|
|Tag(s):||Sit-ins, Lunch Counter, Bus, Protests, College Students, Tallahassee, boycott, Civil Rights|
|Course:||“African American History Since 1877,” Rollins College|
|Rating:||5 (4 votes)|
On Saturday, May 26, 1956, two female Florida A&M University students paid their fare and boarded a bus almost filled to capacity. After sitting in the only remaining open seats on the bus, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson were quickly asked by the bus driver to stand because the seats that they were occupying were next to a white woman. The young women agreed to get off of the bus contingent upon their fares being returned to them. The bus driver refused, and in kind, they refused to get off of the bus. The authorities were immediately called, and the two were arrested and jailed for inciting a riot. Although this incident was unplanned, it was the spark that ignited the civil rights movement in Tallahassee.
After crosses were burned in front of the co-eds’ residence, Florida A&M University Student Government president, Broadus Hartley, decided to take action. On Monday morning, he called a campus-wide meeting to discuss the issue. It was at this meeting that the students made the decision to suspend the use of the bus system until equal riding privileges were given to African Americans. Word quickly spread throughout the community and the next day, leaders from the local NAACP and citizens met at Bethel Baptist Church and decided to join the students’ protest. By Wednesday morning, white officials felt the true power of their opposition. In 48 hours, the patronage of approximately 15,000 African Americans to which they had become accustomed had disappeared. The bus system ran for only thirty-three days until they were forced to suspend bus service due to lack of funds. Because the bus company was unwilling to fully meet the demand of equal service for African Americans, the boycott continued well into 1957.
According to Lewis M. Killian, “the largest black social structure in Tallahassee was the Florida A and M student body…[and] this structure had no history of social activism.” This is important because it identifies the Tallahassee bus boycott as the first time that student body of Florida A&M engaged in any sort of activism. The students recognized that their participation was paramount in the success of the boycott and by the end of 1959, a campus-based, interracial organization called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began organizing more frequent and militant protests. Comprised of black students from Florida A&M University and white students from Florida State University, it was “the newest civil rights organization in the city.”
On February 20, 1960, the students were prepared to make history again. CORE conducted a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter with a total of thirteen participants; eleven of the participants were arrested and jailed for unlawful assembly and disturbing the peace. “Eight of the students decided to serve sixty days in the local jail rather than pay $300 for their release. This was the first case of “jail-versus-bail” in the civil rights movement.” Similar sit-ins began to occur in cities across the South, but “only in Tallahassee did the student protesters attend a publicly supported institution [FAMU]. Just as important, when the capital city sit-ins became interracial, Tallahassee achieved a notoriety that further distinguished it from many cities of the Deep South.”
“Without the students, there would have been no protest, there would have been no movement.” These were the words of Reverend Charles Kenzie Steele, one of the most well-known leaders in Tallahassee’s civil rights movement. Reverend Steele was popular among the college-age population because, while some of the older activists viewed the sit-ins, jail-ins, and protests as impulsive and rash activities, he was one of the leaders in the Tallahassee area who vocally supported the younger generation’s action-based activism. He understood the importance in the numbers, stamina, time that college students could devote to protests that adults could not. One could easily argue that the speed and success of Tallahassee’s civil rights movement became reliant upon the involvement of students and faculty from Florida A&M University. It is my opinion that credit is due to the students and faculty who applied the constant pressure for equality in public spaces; they continue to provide a monumental legacy for the nonviolent protests of today.