Rosa Parks made history when she refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus and ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What some may not know, however, is another significant moment in the civil rights movement occurred in Tallahassee in the mid 1950s.
For more than six months Tallahassee’s transit authority, now known as TalTran, suffered a massive boycott that began with two FAMU students.
On May 26, 1956, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson were arrested for starting a riot after they refused to give up their seats to a white passenger. Robert Saunders, a local NAACP leader, and the Rev. Charles Kenzie Steele, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, offered full support after the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the women’s front yard.
Steele, who was the first vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized a meeting at his church where over 500 blacks unanimously agreed to boycott the buses along with Jakes and Patterson and a group of students from the University. The meeting also formed the Inter-Civic Council, a group of self-employed black businessmen and clergymen.
Under Steele’s leadership as president, the council spearheaded the boycott.
Walter Jordan, a maintenance worker for FAMU, has lived in Tallahassee all his life.
He remembers the boycott and the carpooling arranged by Steele and the ICC.
“People were doing what they had to do,” he said. “About 75 to 80 percent of the black community participated.”
After the city’s transit took matters into its own hands and allowed seating for blacks anywhere, the city commission and former Gov. LeRoy Collins suspended bus services.
“I couldn’t imagine bus services not being offered today,” said Kristin Bost, 19, a sophomore biology student from Salisbury, N.C.
On January 7, 1957, the city commission repealed the segregation clause. The new bus seating policy gave drivers the authority to assign seats based on “maximum health and safety” for passengers.
Jonathan Quarles, 21, a former president of the NAACP FAMU chapter, said the movement for equality has had a facelift over the decades.
“We are no longer fighting civil rights,” said the junior political science student from Flint, Mich.
“Now we are fighting what I would call ‘silver’ rights, which is a struggle on a financial front.”
Charlana Brown, 20, a junior broadcast journalism student from Los Angeles, said it is difficult to envision students coming together to protest something today.
“It’s hard to believe students were so supportive (of the boycott), but it could be possible today,” said Brown, an active member of FAMU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Students don’t have to fight for much now.”
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