C.K. Steele

The only statue of a person in the state's capital is not of a governor, statesman or military leader. It stands at a bus terminal on Tennessee Street and it is of the Rev. C.K. Steele.

Civil rights activist, friend and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., and key organizer of the successful Tallahassee bus boycott, Charles Kenzie Steele is an overlooked figure in the history of the civil rights movement.

"Unlike some leaders, he not only brought about change, but helped heal the community," said Eckerd College history professor Gregory Padgett.

Born in 1914 in Bluefield, W.Va., Steele wanted to be a minister from the time he was young. After serving churches in Montgomery, Ala., and Augusta, Ga., Steele became pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Tallahassee in 1952, where he remained until his death.

Raised in less racially charged West Virginia, he was scandalized by Southern segregation when he went to Atlanta to attend Morehouse, the black college that produced a generation of civil rights pioneers.

Steele became a charter member and first vice president of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a post he held the rest of his life.In May 1956, Steele was elected president of the Inter-Civic Council, which was formed to boycott the city bus company after two Florida A&M University coeds were arrested for sitting in the "whites only" section.

He was chosen for his eloquence and his personal integrity. At a council meeting, he said: "They have thrown rocks, they have smashed car windows, they have burned crosses. Well, I am happy to state here tonight that I have no fear of them and, praise God, I have no hate for them."

Bus service was integrated two years later.

Steele went on to press for equal rights in schools, housing and government, not only in Tallahassee but across the South.

He died of bone marrow cancer at 66 in 1980 in Tallahassee. Public officials and ordinary citizens, white and black, attended his funeral. For the man who "preached the Christian message of universal brotherhood," his funeral was a solemn vindication of his life's work.

-- Cary McMullen
Recommended reading: "Reverend C.K. Steele, Civil Rights Leader" in "African-Americans in Florida" by Maxine D. Jones and Kevin M. McCarthy (Pineapple Press, 1993)
"Tallahassee 1956 -- A Bus Boycott Takes Root and Blossoms" and "Reverend C.K. Steele -- An Orator at the Protest's Helm" by Gregory B. Padgett in Forum, the Florida Humanities Council magazine, Winter 1994-95.

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