Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Florida

April 4, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a towering figure in the history of civil rights activism. Florida Governor Rick Scott directed the flags on public buildings throughout the state to be flown at half-mast, and proclaimed the day as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50th Anniversary Remembrance Day.

Reactions to Dr. King’s killing in 1968 were swift and widespread, as his many followers took to the streets to vent their frustration over the loss of such a powerful force for peaceful change. For many civil rights activists in Florida, this loss was personal. King had not only inspired them but in some cases had directly supported or even personally participated in their mission to banish segregation from the Sunshine State.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca. 1960s)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (ca. 1960s)

One example of this is the notice Dr. King took of a group of African-American students who were jailed in 1960 for staging a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee. Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, students at Florida A&M University and founders of the Tallahassee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were instrumental in organizing the protests and were among the students arrested. They were charged with civil disobedience and ordered to pay a $300 fine or spend 60 days in jail. Eight students, including the Stephens sisters, chose to go to jail rather than pay the fine, underscoring their assertion that their cause was just.

This “jail-in” attracted significant media attention, and supportive letters and telegrams began arriving from across the nation, including a telegram from Dr. King. Using local Tallahassee civil rights activist Rev. C.K. Steele as an intermediary, Dr. King urged the students to “remember that unearned suffering is redemptive. Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity.” Here is the complete message, one of many digitized as part of the Stephens Sisters Jail-In Papers on Florida Memory:

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a “sit-in” at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960.

Dr. King was more directly involved in a series of protests in mid-1964 in St. Augustine, which was then preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary. Racial unrest had been on the upswing for over a year, stemming from ongoing segregation in the city, and especially from local officials’ near-complete exclusion of African-Americans from the celebration planning process. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began directly supporting local civil rights activists in St. Augustine in the spring of 1964, with Dr. King himself arriving in May to rally the protesters. He was arrested on June 11 along with fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy when the two men requested service at a segregated restaurant. King was subsequently moved to the Duval County jail, where he reportedly said to one African-American employee, “Hello, sister. I’ve been in fifteen jails, but this is the first time that I have been treated like a hog.” King was eventually released, but he was arrested at least twice more that same month during his stay in St. Augustine. The protests King and the SCLC helped organize were not in vain. The episode helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was before Congress at that moment, and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

St. Augustine’s arrest records for June 30, 1964. The entry for Dr. King’s arrest is located near the bottom of the page.

When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, reactions in Florida ranged from quiet memorials to passionate demonstrations and rioting. Local and state officials acted quickly to restore the peace, but they also gave a nod of respect to King’s fervent belief in the power of peaceful protest. Governor Claude Kirk issued a statement directing the flags on public buildings in Florida to be flown at half-mast for two days to honor the passing of both Dr. King and a Tallahassee man who died when a firebomb was thrown into his family’s grocery store during tense demonstrations the day before. “Every Floridian has a choice,” Kirk wrote. “It is whether to turn to the advocates of violence and insurrection for leadership, or to renew our commitment to equal opportunity and racial justice through peaceful means.”

News release from Governor Kirk asking Floridians to display flags at half-mast from April 5-7, 1968, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s legacy extends far beyond the annual celebration of his birthday in January or the many streets and highways named in his honor. For Floridians, including both veterans of the civil rights movement and young people just now learning about its history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still stands out as an example of tireless leadership and determination to fulfill the promise of equality and freedom for all Americans.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

In the summer of 1959, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the Miami Interracial Action Institute and taught attendees principles of non-violent direct action to combat inequality in the South. Two attendees, sisters Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, took these principles with them when they returned to Tallahassee for school and formed the Tallahassee chapter of CORE. Using tactics they learned at the CORE workshop, the Stephens sisters held their first sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee on February 13, 1960, and a second sit-in at the same lunch counter a week later, which led to the arrest of the sisters and a group of other students. Rather than pay their fines, eight students opted for jail time, effectively launching the first jail-in of the civil rights movement.

The eight jailed students and CORE were suddenly thrown into the national spotlight. CORE used the opportunity to draw attention to their organization. What were CORE’s principles, and how could people join the growing civil rights movement through CORE? Using records from the Patricia Stephens Due Papers (N2015-1), we take a look at the materials CORE published and how young activists in Florida, including the Stephens sisters, used CORE as the foundation for fighting racial discrimination.

Participants in the CORE Miami Interracial Action Institute in 1959 at the Sir John Hotel. Seated, left to right: Mrs. Shirley Zoloth, Patricia Stephens (later Due), person unknown, Vera Williams and Priscilla Stephens (later Kruize). Standing, left to right: Jim Dewar, Zev Aelony, person unknown, James T. McCain and Gordon Carey.

CORE formed its Miami chapter in 1959 and the Tallahassee chapter emerged soon after. By the time the organization made its way to Florida, CORE had been active in the United States for nearly two decades. Started in 1942 by pacifist students at the University of Chicago, CORE’s members wanted to use Gandhian techniques of non-violent direct action to improve race relations in the United States. CORE grew out of another pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which was started during World War II with a focus on non-violent direct action for social justice. The first course of action for CORE was to counter the discriminatory housing market in the Chicago area, but their activism quickly grew to a national scale when CORE members decided to target bus segregation in the South.

A pamphlet about CORE’s principles of non-violent direct action which includes 13 rules for action, ca. 1957.

In April 1947, 16 male CORE and FOR members began a project called the “Journey of Reconciliation” through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to test integration on interstate buses. The eight black and eight white activists were responding to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), which ruled segregation in interstate bus travel unconstitutional. With the law on their side, the 16 men rode buses and trains across these Southern states. Some were arrested, but others were able to ride public transportation without any attention. When a rider was confronted, he would use the non-violent tactics he had learned and cite the Supreme Court decision. Although this protest against bus segregation received little national press coverage at the time and resulted in almost no changes to discriminatory policies, it paved the way for the Freedom Rides in 1961.

A CORE flier encouraging people to boycott Shell’s City in Miami for refusing to serve African-Americans at its lunch counter, ca. 1960.

In the mid-1950s, CORE slowly began to establish chapters throughout the country. After the first all-white school in Miami was integrated in 1959, CORE headed to this southern city and started a chapter. CORE then decided to host the Interracial Action Institute, which the Stephens sisters and 10 others from all over the U.S. attended. One of the purposes of the institute was to train participants to use non-violent direct action “as a weapon to advance integration.” Since CORE couldn’t be everywhere at once, their goal was to train people locally so they could then use CORE tactics in their communities. At the institute, participants went through intensive training by role-playing different scenarios they might encounter while holding their demonstrations and were taught how to respond. Participants then put theory into practice, leading a voter registration drive by going door to door in black communities and holding lunch counters sit-ins to challenge discriminatory policies under the guidance of CORE leaders. When the workshop was over, participants went back to their homes to carry on the fight for equality.

Leaflet with guidelines for how to carry out CORE pickets, February 26, 1960.

The Stephens sisters returned to Tallahassee for the fall semester at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) ready to challenge discrimination in the capital city. They quickly formed a CORE chapter in Tallahassee and began documenting instances of discriminatory policies. The February 1, 1960, lunch counter demonstration at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, laid the groundwork for sit-ins across the South. Inspired by the non-violent direct action demonstration of the four students in Greensboro, national CORE asked local chapters to hold sympathy demonstrations in their communities. Ten students, including the Stephens sisters, participated in a sympathy sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee on February 13. The students ordered slices of cake and were refused service. During their two hours at the lunch counter, the students were derided by onlookers, but they remained faithful to their CORE training and didn’t engage with the crowd. When Woolworth’s management closed the counter, the students went home.

CORE members holding a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 13, 1960. Patricia Stephens is wearing dark glasses and Henry Steele Jr. sits closest to the camera.

After this first sit-in, Tallahassee CORE planned another for the following Saturday. On February 20, a group of 17 demonstrators made their way to the Woolworth’s lunch counter and ordered food. Most of the group was composed of FAMU students, but there were also high school students participating. A large group surrounded the demonstrators and told them to move from their seats. Seven of them did leave, but the 11 remaining demonstrators were arrested by police. At their trial, they were charged with disturbing the peace. All of them were found guilty and given the option to pay a $300 fine or spend 60 days in jail. Eight students, including the Stephens sisters, refused to pay the fine. Rather than pay, they chose to hold the first jail-in of the civil rights movement. As a result, CORE and its principles of non-violent direct action were placed in the national spotlight, and people from all over the country wrote to the jailed students to offer support for their demonstrations. When the students were released from jail after serving 49 days, they persistently pursued racial equality in the United States.

A booklet published by CORE consisting of six stories written by young people involved with sit-ins and other non-violent demonstrations across the United States, May 1960. Patricia Stephens  tells her story from jail where she was serving her 60-day sentence with seven other activists, including her sister, Priscilla. Patricia writes about the events leading up to being jailed and the conditions at the Leon County Jail in Tallahassee. The other five stories were written by Edward Rodman (Portsmouth, Virginia), Paul Laprad (Nashville, Tennessee), Thomas Gaither (Orangeburg, South Carolina), Major Johns (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and Martin Smolin (activities in the North).

Activists continued to use the principles of CORE throughout the civil rights movement. Financial problems and internal disputes, which plagued CORE from the beginning, led to the collapse of many local chapters by the mid-1960s. Now CORE is remembered as one of the leading organizations during the fight for civil rights and as the catalyst for civil rights activities in Florida.

You can learn more about the Tallahassee jail-in in our online collection, Stephens Sisters Jail-In Papers, 1960.

Resources

Catsam, Derek Charles. Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

Due, Tananarive, and Patricia Stephens Due. Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513-2008. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Mohl, Raymond A. South of the South: Jewish Activists and the Civil Rights Movement in Miami, 1945-1960. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Florida Reacts to the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968)

Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by gunshot on April 4, 1968 as he stood on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The reaction across the United States was a mixture of disbelief, grief, and at times violent anger. Tensions boiled over in scores of U.S. cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C. as young people took to the streets to vent their frustration at the untimely death of one of the era’s greatest forces for peaceful change.

Reactions to King’s death were just as passionate in Florida, where memorials, demonstrations, and rioting took place in several cities across the state. Police in Pensacola, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Fort Pierce, Pompano Beach, Tampa, and Jacksonville reported widespread rioting and the use of Molotov cocktails to firebomb businesses and residences owned by whites. At least one fatality resulted from these activities in Tallahassee, where one man aged 19 died when a firebomb was thrown into his family’s grocery store.

Local and state officials moved quickly to restore order. The city of Gainesville instituted a curfew shortly after news of the assassination broke out, requiring everyone except emergency personnel to remain off the streets between 11pm and 6am. In Gainesville and Tallahassee, law enforcement temporarily closed liquor stores, bars, and gas stations. Governor Claude Kirk met with state law enforcement officials to plan a statewide strategy for maintaining the peace, and kept in close contact with local sheriffs and police.

Organizations both inside and outside of the government encouraged the public to remain calm and avoid any further violence. Governor Kirk asked that all flags flown on public buildings in the state be flown at half mast for two days, and in a press release he called on Dr. King’s followers and admirers to live by King’s example and seek nonviolent solutions for their grievances. George Gore, president of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, closed the campus for a weeklong “cooling off” period following the assassination. The Florida Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) released a statement calling for Floridians to observe the day of King’s funeral (April 9th) as a “time of sober reflection” rather than demonstration.

Although anguish and disillusionment over the death of one of the Civil Rights Movement’s foremost leaders would remain potent long after these events, the most dramatic reactions ended by the middle of April 1968. Rumors circulated that Governor Kirk would call a special session of the Legislature to discuss the crisis, but this proved unnecessary. The brief period of unrest in Florida that followed Dr. King’s untimely death has been captured in a number of documents and photographs, some of which are shown below.

Governor Claude Kirk meets with state law enforcement officials to discuss a response to the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Governor Claude Kirk meets with state law enforcement officials to discuss a response to the unrest following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Crow's Grocery Store, located at 1902 Lake Bradford Road in Tallahassee, Florida, was damaged when a Molotov cocktail firebomb was thrown inside during the unrest following Dr. King's death. Travis Crow, age 19, died of suffocation before he could escape the building.

This photo from the Tallahassee Fire Department Collection depicts one of the casualties of the reaction that followed Dr. King’s assassination. Crow’s Grocery Store, located at 1902 Lake Bradford Road in Tallahassee, Florida, was damaged when a Molotov cocktail firebomb was thrown inside. Travis Crow, age 19, died of suffocation before he could escape the building.

This Associated Press news summary describes some of the typical stories emerging from the widespread reaction to Dr. King's assassination.

This Associated Press news summary describes some of the typical stories emerging from the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination.

The Florida Photographic Collection contains more images depicting Dr. Martin Luther King, his activities in Florida over the years, and the efforts of Floridians across the state to honor his memory.

Teachers and students may also find the Black History Month resources of our Online Classroom helpful, as well as our learning unit entitled The Civil Rights Movement in Florida.

The Tallahassee Bus Boycott Begins (May 1956)

On May 26, 1956, two female students from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, sat down in the “whites only” section of a segregated bus in the city of Tallahassee. When they refused to move to the “colored” section at the rear of the bus, the driver pulled into a service station and called the police. Tallahassee police arrested Jakes and Patterson and charged them with “placing themselves in a position to incite a riot.”

In the days immediately following these arrests, students at FAMU organized a campus-wide boycott of city buses. Their collective stand against segregation set an example that propelled like-minded Tallahassee citizens into action. Soon, news of the boycott spread throughout the community.

Reverend C. K. Steele at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Tallahassee, January 3, 1957

Reverend C. K. Steele at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, Tallahassee, January 3, 1957

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Patricia Stephens Due (December 9, 1939 – February 7, 2012)

Patricia Stephens Due at Civil rights demonstration in front of segregated theater: Tallahassee, Florida (1963)

Patricia Stephens Due at a civil rights demonstration in front of a segregated theater in Tallahassee (1963).

Civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due passed away on Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at the age of 72.

Due, a native of Quincy, Florida, led demonstrations and voter-registration drives in Tallahassee during the height of the Civil Rights movement. She was among a group of students from Florida A&M University jailed for attempting to integrate a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s department store in downtown Tallahassee on February 20, 1960.

Due and eight of her companions from the Woolworth’s sit-in refused to pay a $300 fine, opting instead to serve jail time. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized their determination in the struggle for civil rights and sent letters to the jail. Other civil rights leaders including Jackie Robinson also contacted the group of eight in the Leon County Jail.

Due penned a letter while in the Leon County Jail, detailing her commitment to civil rights and recounting the Woolworth’s sit-in. She participated in many other demonstrations in Tallahassee in the 1960s, joined several civil rights organizations, and served as the field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality in Tallahassee.

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks proclaimed May 11, 2011 “Patricia Stephens Due Day,” recognizing her critical role in and contributions to the Civil Rights movement in Tallahassee and beyond.

Sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter - Tallahassee, Florida

Sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter, Tallahassee (1960).