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Tallahassee black community boycotts buses for desegregation, 1956-57
On May 27, 1956, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, two female students at all-black Florida A+M University in Tallahassee, Florida, paid their ten-cent fares and boarded a segregated city bus. They sat in seats normally occupied by white people, because the back of the bus, where black patrons were expected to sit, was very crowded. When the driver asked them to move, they refused, citing the standing-room only conditions of the back of the bus, and their own fatigue. They offered to leave if their fares were refunded. The driver refused, and had them arrested on the charges of trying to incite a riot.
Up to this point, race relations in Tallahassee had been relatively calm, especially in comparison to the rest of the Gulf Coast and Southern United States. Within the oppressive confines of segregation, Tallahassee lacked the conflict, struggle and polarity that characterized the environment of many other cities during segregation. This incident, and the actions that followed, marked an end to that calm.
Following the arrests, the police turned the girls’ charges over to Florida A+M campus security, which eventually dropped them. The Tallahassee Democrat, the local newspaper, reported on the incident, and included the girls’ home address in their account. Hours later, white community members burned a cross into the front yard of their home. The next morning, the student body president of Florida A+M, Broadus Hartley, held a mass meeting, and called for a campus-wide boycott of city buses until the end of the semester, a little less than two weeks away. For the next two days, teams of students blocked and boarded buses as they entered campus, and urged all of the black passengers to disembark. Most complied, but in a couple cases, most notably that of Reverend R. N. Webb, the students forced people to disembark, leading the State Board of Control to pressure Florida A+M staff into prohibiting students from boarding city buses.
On May 29, Reverend C.K. Steele, the acting president of the Tallahassee chapter of the NAACP, and Dr. James Hudson, the president of the Tallahassee Ministerial Alliance, held a general meeting to discuss action at Reverend Steele’s church. More than 500 people attended, and the boycott became a project of the entire black community, rather than campus specific. The group decided to form a special committee responsible for negotiations with city officials, called the Inter-Civic Council (ICC), and elected Steele as its chair. At the same time, an ICC-sponsored carpool was formed that allowed black workers, primarily black female maids, to get to work safely. The Montgomery Improvement Association, the ICC’s Alabama counterpart, made a $1,500 donation in support of the carpool. The NAACP also lent support, but in quiet ways, to ensure that the boycott was seen as a local movement.
On June 1, representatives of the ICC met with attorneys for the bus company and the city, and officially presented the three demands of the ICC. They were that: (1) Seating be available on a first come first serve basis, regardless of race, (2) white drivers treat all passengers with respect, and (3) black drivers be hired for routes that served the black community. Since 80% of bus riders in Tallahassee were black, city officials were forced to take them seriously.
On June 3, representatives of the city published a proposal for ending the boycott in the Tallahassee Democrat, offering a compromise. The city stated that all bus riders are currently treated with courtesy, and indicated that the bus company would begin accepting black applicants for driving positions. The city agreed to allow seating on the bus to be available on a first come, first serve basis, but refused to allow people of different races to share seats, meaning that if the only open seats on the bus were next to white people, black riders would be forced to stand. That night over 1,000 black members of the community attended a meeting to discuss the proposal. Reverend Steele stated that he couldn’t accept segregation of any kind, and the room voted unanimously to continue the boycott.
At the same meeting, a resolution was passed to make the intentions of the boycott clearer, demanding that all bus passengers “Sit wherever they choose on any bus or buses,” that drivers be reminded of their “never ending obligations to render courteous service and equitable treatment to all passengers regardless of race, creed, or color,” and that black drivers be hired. Over the next week, these demands were rejected by the city commissioners in a variety of forums, and predominantly black bus routes, through Florida A+M campus, and Frenchtown, were cancelled due to a lack of ridership.
However, that same lack of ridership presented economic problems for the bus company, which was a problem for white citizens. In order to maintain bus service in white neighborhoods, the city was forced to subsidize their operations through decreased taxation. In an effort to discredit the boycott, white city leaders published editorials in the Tallahassee Democrat, calling the bus boycott a conspiracy orchestrated by the NAACP, and claiming that the black community was propagating a militant attitude. All of these actions served to galvanize the boycotters as they realized their own economic power.
On July 1, 1956, the bus company announced a total suspension of services, due to lack of revenue. This news caused the city commission to begin further cracking down on the boycott, specifically targeting the carpools, which were allowing the boycott to continue successfully. The city began categorizing carpools as commercial vehicles, and therefore requiring them to hold expensive commercial licensure tags. Police began randomly arresting African-American drivers, regardless of whether they were operating a carpool, or, as in many cases, simply transporting their family in their personal vehicle. In response, the ICC led the black community in boycotting white-owned businesses in Tallahassee’s downtown. In addition, the ICC began a massive voter registration drive, with the hopes of influencing the government itself.
In August, the bus company officially recognized the ICC as the bargaining unit of the black community, and bus service resumed. They hired a small number of black drivers to work black routes. Although small, this was enough for many members of the community. Many blacks began riding buses again, the end of the mass boycott, though only on routes run by the black drivers. However, segregation continued, and thus, Florida A+M students and the ICC continued to boycott the buses. Throughout August and September, the drivers of the carpools prepared to go on trial for a lack of vehicle tags. The judge, John Rudd, was known to have biased views about race, and none of the defendants had any illusions about receiving a fair trial. As the trial neared, harassment of the black community increased, including hooded Ku Klux Klansmen marching past Sunday services at Reverend Steele’s church, and rumors spread that Steele had been murdered.
On October 27, 1956, the trial of the 22 carpool operators began. After three days, they were all found guilty, and fined a total of $11,000. The black community responded to this blatant attempt to bankrupt the ICC by redoubling their voter registration drive. Then, on Christmas Eve 1956, Reverend Steele, A.C. Reed, and H. McNeal Harris boarded a bus and sat in the white-only section together, in an effort to bring media attention and increased energy to the boycott. The ride was photographed by Life magazine bringing national, primarily negative attention to Steele and his cohort. Harassment increased, and white community members, many connected to the Ku Klux Klan directed gunfire, bricks, and bottles at Reverend Steele’s house on an almost daily basis. Other members of the boycott were also targeted. Florida Governor Leroy Collins stated his firm opposition to violence, and suspended all bus service in an effort to ease the tension.
The bus company suffered greatly from the suspension, and immediately began pressuring the city commission to have the order rescinded. On January 16, 1957, the city commission announced a new, numbered seating policy on buses, which allowed drivers to assign seats in any manner that they chose. The ICC maintained that this was still a form of segregation, and therefore thoroughly unacceptable. Three white students from Florida State University boarded a bus and sat with Reverend Steele and other members of the ICC, in an effort to flout the regulation. Similar protest rides continued throughout January, and so did the violence. However, over time, energy and attention decreased as an unspoken compromise began to coalesce.
By the end of January 1957, the boycott had ceased, though many African-Americans continued to individually choose not to ride the buses. After the city commission rescinded the segregated seating ordinance, the bus company phased out the segregated seating policy, ceasing to enforce it on primarily black routes, and only occasionally on more integrated routes. The move was done so quietly that it hardly received any media attention. Although this was not full desegregation, in light of Browder vs. Gayle, the district court ruling that struck down segregation on transportation and upheld by the Supreme Court, desegregation appeared somewhat imminent. As the national civil rights movement took shape, the Tallahassee bus boycott movement faded into the national strategy and goals. The ICC devoted its attention to other matters of civil rights, providing support, resources, and advocacy to the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee throughout the 1960s.