Sixty years ago this week, two FAMU students sat down in the designated whites only area of a City of Tallahassee bus. Carrie Patterson and Wilhelmina Jakes sat in the whites only section of a city bus on May 26, 1956 and were arrested for “attempting to incite a riot.” The previous year Rosa Parks heroic stand in Montgomery, Alabama ushered in the Civil Rights era in the south. Just months after the Montgomery bus boycott began Patterson and Jakes’ followed the same playbook in Tallahassee.
Tallahassee was a classic southern small city, Jeffersonian and segregationist in 1956. The police force much like municipal leaders was very conservative and not only segregationist, but tolerant of violence toward African-Americans.
It was during this period that the infamous Johns’ Committee headed by Senator and former Governor Charley Johns (D-Starke) came into being. While McCarthyism was fading nationally, it was rising in Florida at this point in time – Johns’ committee it can be argued was created to manufacture links between civil rights leaders and leftist groups including the communist part and USSR.
The boycott was sustained for many months thanks to the impact of Rev. CK Steele who helped form a group to provide car pools for African-Americans in Tallahassee and to create the other infrastructure and logistics needed behind the boycott. Many of the volunteers for the car pools were in fact FAMU students and as the summer wore on, many were harassed and arrested by police.
Steele himself was eventually arrested under the premise that he was running an illegal transportation system. Eventually when the US Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery’s segregated busses were illegal. Eventually Governor Leroy Collins stepped in and suspended bus service in Tallahassee until in January 1957, Tallahassee agreed to desegregate its buses.
A Look back from WTXL.
The Florida Channel’s Florida Crossroads.