Tallahassee celebrates civil-rights activism

The legacy of the Tallahassee foot soldier is now embedded in downtown Tallahassee.

The Community Redevelopment Agency along with the city of Tallahassee and Leon County unveiled the Civil Rights Heritage Walk, a commemorative sidewalk on Jefferson Street, Monday.

The foot soldiers are more than 50 civil rights activists who took part in lunch counter sit-ins and bus boycotts. The Tallahassee bus boycotts are considered the second largest in the United States.

Life-size photos of these events stood along the street and in the windows above the sidewalk. The 16 sidewalk panels contained iconic pictures along with slogans and signs from protests in the 1950s and ’60s.

The Rev. Henry Steele, who is an original foot soldier, said he can remember the joy he felt participating back then.

“I was so elated that this was going on because I knew it was real,” he said. “I knew it was going to lead, and I knew it was a turning point.”

According to Steele, foot soldiers were all across the city working hard in multiple ways.

“There are foot soldiers everywhere you go,” he said. “There’s foot soldiers in people who would come and bring solace to my mother [or] come and do something to help things move along, because believe me, it wasn’t easy.”

Rita Taylor, administrative services manager for the city of Tallahassee, said this event was a great success for the community.

“To have the city of Tallahassee and Leon County take a part in this and see the benefit of bringing it together, to show us that we appreciate what those people have done is absolutely phenomenal,” Taylor said.

Frank Deitrich and his wife Debbie were among the audience. Frank, who works for the Leon County planning department, helped to design the sidewalk and works with the initiator of the exhibit.

“My co-worker Dan Donovan was watching a city commission meeting …. and he had an idea to preserve the heritage and civil rights protests that took place around the corners there,” Deitrich said.

One panel displays the image of a young black man sitting at a lunch counter in McCrory’s, a store where many sit-ins took place. Deitrich said he is sure this display will attract tourists for years to come.

Taylor remembers growing up in a time where segregation was alive and apparent.

“I grew up in a community where this side were the blacks’, this side were the whites and the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan grew up in the white community,” she said. “I went to school with his daughter.”

Debbie Deitrich was surprised by the response from the community.

“I didn’t think the turnout was going to be as huge … it just gave me goose bumps listening to the stories of everyone here and a part of the walk itself,” she said.

The work of the foot soldiers was hard and required a lot from the students who participated.

“We’d have strategy sessions and practicing sit-ins, practicing somebody knocking you upside the head or blowing smoke or nudging you,” Steele said. “It was a sacrifice.”

This sacrifice given nearly 60 years ago altered Tallahassee and the United States, leaving a permanent change for those soldiers to be proud of and future generations to appreciate.

With a simple but powerful phrase, Steele closed saying, “Thank God for foot soldiers.”