Local Residents Recount Memories as the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is Commemorated

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By: Lanetra Bennett
June 30, 2014

Tallahassee, FL - The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed 50-years ago after a series protests across the nation.

Many of those battles for equal rights were fought right here in our communities.

"When you talk about civil rights in Tallahassee, you cannot do it without speaking my father, C.K. Steele." Says, Henry Steele.

Rev. C.K. Steele is memorialized in a statute in front of the main bus terminal in Tallahassee. The plaza is named after the civil rights leader.

Steele says, "When they unveiled this, there was a whoop that went up from everybody. I could see Herbert Alexander, my father's successor, looking up with a broad grin on his face, pointing to my dad."

Rev. Steele worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped him organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

"A lot of people, when they think about my dad and civil rights, they think about the bus boycott." Says, Steele.

Reverend Steele helped orchestrate the Tallahassee Bus Boycott in 1956, which led to the desegregation of city buses and the hiring of African American drivers.

Steele says, "However, his involvement entailed much more than the bus boycott. That was perhaps the beginning of the active contemporary civil rights movements."

Sit-ins at lunch counters and protests in front of downtown movie theaters would follow.

Steele recalls how his family's fight for justice impacted their home life. He says, "We had a lot of terror, a lot of heckling. Our home was attacked with rocks and shootings and telephone calls and mail. All different kinds of things were used to harass us. We even had to move out of our house."

Tallahassee NAACP President, Dale Landry, says, "It's those shoulders, those shoulders that's got us where we're at. We got to preserve what they did. So, that's why this is important."

A month after the 1963 March on Washington, FAMU students protested for integration at the Florida Theatre on Monroe Street in Tallahassee.

Tallahassee resident Ray Henderson says, "The folks would urinate in whatever containers, allow it to stagnate and then bring those, fill the urine into the balloons, come and basically throw the balloons at us and burst the balloons on us with all the urine in it."

After a wave of students were arrested for peaceably demonstrating, Ronald Tate says he and another group of students decided to protest the arrests. The Leon County Jail -- which was where the vacant George Firestone Building is now on Gaines Street -- was overcrowded.

So, surely, they thought, they couldn't be arrested, too.

"Well, they had another plan, and their plan was to bring us right here at the fairgrounds and put those who were arrested." Says, Tate.

Tate says up to 300 students were detained where live stock was normally kept.

He says, "Equal rights are sort of, you take for granted. If you don't have them, you say, you don't want to wait, you want them now. Many people said well, wait it takes time and so forth. But, your feeling is that you definitely want your rights now. This is not something you should have to wait for."

Nathaniel Wesley was the FAMU student body president. He says when he led students on a protest, they started walking from campus to head to the theatre downtown, when they suddenly spotted buses.

He says, "That was sort of unexpected. There were about 91 of us, 90 something it was who got on the bus, we marched on the bus, buses were waiting for us. So they know we were coming and they took us to the fairground. I thought we were going to the Florida Theatre. We were jailed on the fairgrounds. Then we decided to stay there. That was where we were going to live for a long time."

Tate says, "Some people said they gave us mats. I don't remember the mats."

Landry says, "Look at the floor in this building. They slept on concrete. I was retired United States Army. It was bad enough sleeping on our sleeping bags on the ground. I can't envision anybody sleeping on concrete in an animal pen. They are the heroes. They are the heroes."

Monday night, the Tallahassee NAACP is hosting a celebration for the Civil Rights Act's 50th Anniversary. Our very own A.J. Hilton is serving as the host. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. in the "Blue Cross Blue Shield" Auditorium in the Pharmacy Building on FAMU's campus.

The event is free and open to the public.

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