Reverend Charles Kenzie (C.K.) Steele Sr. arrived in Tallahassee during a significant time in its history. After graduating from the School of Religion at Morehouse College in 1938, and serving congregations in Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, Steele came to Tallahassee in 1952 as the newly-appointed pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Reverend Steele later rose to local and national prominence as a civil rights activist during the Tallahassee Bus Boycott of 1956.
Presumably inspired by the 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (led by Reverend T.J. Jemison, a friend of Steele’s), and the better-known 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, involving Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Florida A&M University (FAMU) students began boycotting Tallahassee city buses in late May 1956, after two black students were arrested for sitting in bus seats reserved for white passengers. A subsequent crossburning at the residence of the two students galvanized the FAMU student body and inspired them to action. The boycott quickly drew in community members as well, and an Inter-Civic Council was created to organize and maintain the boycott. Reverend Steele was elected as its president. Steele recognized the need for a local organization to take charge, for if a national organization like the NAACP were involved, the boycott would be vulnerable to charges of “outside agitation.” Steele was not just a figurehead, but endured many personal hazards while executing the boycott. He was arrested four times in a single day while operating a carpool for black people boycotting the bus, on charges of operating a transportation system without a franchise. He also endured the firebombing of his home (near the present-day site of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church). However, the boycott successfully brought attention to the segregation policies of the city bus system, and catalyzed the eventual integration of the buses two years later.
In an address to Florida State University Black Studies students in 1978 on the topic of non-violent resistance, Steele touched on meeting with Dr. King in Montgomery, the origins of the 1956 Tallahassee bus boycott, human nature, and the power of love:
In late 1956, noted civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin phoned Steele to ask him to lead a conference of Southern civil rights leaders. Steele respectfully declined, and suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King would be a more fitting leader for the group. Steele helped organize the first meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in January 1957. When King was called away from the meeting in response to church bombings in Montgomery, it was SCLC vice-president Steele who conducted that first conference.
C.K. Steele’s legacy in Tallahassee is evident in many ways. In 1979, shortly before his death the next year from bone cancer, Steele was awarded an honorary doctorate by Florida State University, the first African-American so honored by FSU. Appropriately, the current hub of the city bus system is named C.K. Steele Plaza, featuring a sculpture of Steele. Bethel Empowerment Foundation, Inc. , a sister organization to Steele’s former congregation at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, has operated the Steele-Collins Charter Middle School since 1996, honoring both Reverend Steele and former Florida governor LeRoy Collins for their work in advancing civil rights in Tallahassee and beyond.
Magnum, Jeff. (December 3, 1979). Steele receives honorary degree. Florida Flambeau, page 9. https://archive.org/stream/Florida_Flambeau_1979_Dec#page/n8/mode/1up
Padgett, Gregory B. (1994). C. K. Steele, a biography (Doctoral dissertation). http://purl.flvc.org/fcla/dl/FS00000104.jpg
Tallahassee Civil Rights Oral History Collection (01/MSS 1990-001). Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Florida. http://purl.fcla.edu/fsu/MSS_1990-001
Rory Grennan is Manuscript and Instruction Archivist at Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.