Celebrating C.K. Steele

Reverend C.K. Steele delivering speech to crowd during the “Free Bill Johnson” rally in Frenchtown – Tallahassee, Florida. July 31, 1971. Florida Memory, John Buckley collection.

Charles Kenzie Steele was born on this day, February 17, in 1914.

Steele was a prominent Civil Rights activist and one of the central organizers of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott in 1956. He moved to Tallahassee with his family in 1952 to become the preacher at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

On May 27, 1956 two black Florida A&M University students refused to move to the colored section at the back of a city bus. The students were arrested on the grounds that their actions were riot-inducing. Later that evening, a cross was burned on the lawn of the house shared by the two students.

Steele and other community members responded by forming the Inter-Civic Council, a local organization responsible for planning and carrying out what would become a 7 month-long boycott of the bus system. Steele served as the first president of the organization, as well as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

The Tallahassee bus boycott was successful due to the efforts of the Inter-Civic Council to arrange carpools to transport boycotters without using the public transportation system. The Tallahassee event was only the second organized bus boycott in the nation, fueled and inspired by the events of the Montgomery bus boycott, and was in some ways more immediately successful. The loss of revenue from boycotters crippled the Tallahassee bus system, leading to great turmoil within the city, but ultimately an agreement was reached in December 1956. The bus system was fully integrated in 1958.

Reverend C. K. Steele (center left), and Reverend H. McNeal Harris (center right), protesting segregated bus seating in Tallahassee. December 24, 1956. Florida Memory Reference Collection.

In 1957, Steele became the founding executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with Martin Luther King Jr. serving as the founding president. The purpose of the SCLC was non-violent mass actions to end segregation. Steele’s oldest son, Charles Steele Jr. serves as the current president of the SCLC.

Steele fought tirelessly to end segregation in Tallahassee and confronted injustice directly. He was committed to the principles of non-violence despite the constant threats and harassment he and his family endured from local members of the white community.

In 1980, Steele was the first African-American to be awarded an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Florida State University. His dedication to the integration of the Tallahassee bus system is celebrated in the the designation of the central bus station in Tallahassee as C. K. Steele Plaza.

To learn more about the local Civil Rights Movement in Tallahassee, please visit the Tallahassee Civil Rights Oral History Collection (01/MSS 1990-001). http://purl.fcla.edu/fsu/MSS_1990-001

Sources

Charles Kenzie Steele. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Kenzie_Steele

Padgett, Gregory B. (1994). C. K. Steele, a biography (Doctoral dissertation).  http://purl.flvc.org/fcla/dl/FS00000104.jpg

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Published by Kristin Hagaman

Research Services Associate, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries

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