Reverend Charles Kenzie "C.K." Steele
Civil Rights Activist

The only statue of a person in Florida's state capital is not of a governor, statesman or military leader. It is of the Rev. Charles Kenzie "C.K." Steele, key organizer of the successful Tallahassee bus boycott and it stands at a bus terminal on Tennessee Street. He was a civil rights activist, friend and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr.

Steele was born February 17, 1914, in Bluefield, West Virginia the son of a coal miner. At an early age he knew that he wanted to preach the gospel and by the age of 15 he was preaching.

In 1938 he moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College. In the following years he preached in Toccoa and Augusta, Ga., and Montgomery, Ala. Then in 1952, when he was 38, he came to Tallahassee. On the way he met Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whose father he had met as a student at Morehouse. He began preaching at Bethel Baptist Church in Tallahassee and for several years life in Florida's capital was relatively calm for the minister. However, the calm would not last.

Armed with the U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning segregated schools and buses, and the later civil rights legislation in Congress, Steele and his followers began to move.

It began with a bus boycott in May 1956, at a time when black passengers were supposed to ride in the back of the bus. Steele was elected president of the Inter-Civic Council, which was formed to boycott the city bus company when two Florida A & M University students Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson refused to give up their seat to a white woman. They were arrested. Steele and his followers boycotted the bus system, bringing it to a halt. Car pools begun by Steele and others were effective, and by July 1, the city bus service was halted.

Steele was arrested several times during the controversy that left Tallahassee without a mass transportation system for the first time in 17 years. Cross burnings and other acts of terrorism against blacks were common during the protest. Former Governor LeRoy Collins said had order the temporary halt, to forestall violence at some bus stops.

"He was strong in his convictions as steel.," Collins said of Steele. "The boycott hurt black people more than it did white people, in the sense that they needed that service more than white people did. But it showed the people of this community that they were very determined to right this wrong."

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."

Many Tallahassee residents saw the protesters' demands as outrageous in 1956. Steele and his followers had many wealthy, influential and vocal antagonists. City commissioners were adamant in opposition to integrated buses. Bus service was integrated two years later.

Later, Steele would refer to the bus boycott as the single most important event in shaping civil-rights activities in Tallahassee.

The bus boycott was just the beginning. Steele was involved in other non-violent sit-ins, marches and boycotts as he and other civil-rights activist labored to achieve integration in the city's restaurants, theaters, airport and schools.

His focus was not just local. He marched side-by-side with such national luminaries as the late Dr. King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy in Montgomery, Selma and St. Augustine. In 1957 Steele helped King and others found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which he was vice president.

He carried the fight for equality through the 60s and 70s. The methods were different but the message was the same. In later years, he turned his attention to economic discrimination against blacks and other people. Steele went on to press for equal rights in schools, housing and government, not only in Tallahassee but also 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.