Civil Rights activists, John Due, and Rev. Henry Marion Steele joined Dr. Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida professor, in a panel discussion about their experiences fighting for social justice at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee, Fla.
During the discussion activists Due and Steele spoke about Tallahassee’s history involving racism, the Tallahassee bus boycott and Florida A&M University’s involvement in the Tallahassee movement.
John Due, a civil rights attorney, and Steele, a leader in the Tallahassee bus boycott, spoke about their role as civil rights pioneers, and what lead them to get involved in the Tallahassee Movement.
Due, who was living up North, decided to move to Tallahassee when he discovered that students at FAMU, and other historically black colleges in the south, were leading the way through sit-ins at lunch counters.
“I came to Tallahassee to get in the movement,” said Due.
Due became a FAMU law student and participated in freedom rides that pushed for integration in interstate transportation. He unexpectedly fell in love with his current wife, Patricia Stephens-Due, a FAMU student at the time, who spent 49 days in jail for refusing to pay a fine for sitting in a “whites only” lunch counter in Tallahassee Fla.
Due’s wife, along with other FAMU students, decided to protest the arrest and were tear gassed by police. This would not solely mark FAMU’s student involvement in the Tallahassee movement.
In 1956, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, two female students from FAMU, sat down in the “whites only” section of a segregated bus in Tallahassee. When they refused to move to the “colored” section at the rear of the bus, the driver pulled into a service station and called the police. Tallahassee police arrested Jakes and Patterson and charged them with “placing themselves in a position to incite a riot.”
Students at FAMU organized a campus-wide boycott of city buses. This encouraged like-minded Tallahassee citizens into action. Soon, news of the boycott spread throughout the community. One of the prominent organizers behind the boycott was Rev. Henry Marion and Steele’s father, Rev. C.K. Steele. Following his father’s footsteps, Steele helps lead several bus boycotts.
“The Tallahassee boycott was the second boycott after Montgomery,” said Steele. “The Tallahassee movement won more gains, including African American bus drivers. Student movement started with the sit-ins.”
The boycott came at a cost when Tallahassee police continually harassed organizers as well as FAMU students who were members of the Inter-Civic Council orchestrated by Steele’s father. Segregationists smashed windows at Rev. Steele’s house and burned crosses on numerous occasions in an attempt to intimidate the black community.
“I’ve known racism all my life,” says Steele as he opened up to the audience filled with students and professors from Florida State University and FAMU, and also local citizens of Tallahassee.
Among those in the audience were Kathie and Don Sarachild, a white married couple who participated in many protest for social justice and equal rights.
“I’ve been arrested several times during protest and physically harmed by law enforcement,” said Kathie Sarachild.
Don Sarachild, who had participated in a lot of protest with FAMU students in the 60s, recalled a particular time in which one protest became so violent that “students were beaten badly.”
“Some had severe head injuries, but we still went back out there,” Don chuckled.
Most of the students in attendance asked several questions regarding what’s next. Where do we go from here? What was the glue that held everyone together to accomplish the movement? What’s the solution?
“People involved in the civil rights movement were like family,” said Steele. “It’s going to take people like you,” he said pointing at the students in the audience.
“The problem is we spend too much time worrying about the middle-class. No, focus on people at the bottom. Help lift the poor up. We need direct and secure programs for the lower class.”
Due believes that welfare has become the problem in North Florida.
“Everybody’s working for the system,” he said. “What happened in the 60s did not just happen in the 60s, it is part of a cultural struggle.”
Due and Steele encouraged students to continue to broaden their knowledge, read more and act on passion.
“There’s still an opportunity to do something here in North Florida,” Due said as he smiled.
The Museum of Florida History will host part two, The Women of Civil Rights, on Feb. 27, at 5:30 p.m.