In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that school segregation was unconstitutional. Although the court insisted on "all deliberate speed" towards integration, the actual process of school desegregation continued into the early 1970s.
At the same time, political protests and a gradual change in laws lead to the integration of buses, stores, theaters, beaches, and many other public places.
Tallahassee Democrat headline on desegregation ruling (1954)
Virgil Hawkins (1906-1988) graduated from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville in 1930, and returned to Daytona to become a teacher and principal. He later became public relations director for Bethune-Cookman College.
In 1946, Hawkins and five other African-Americans applied for admission to professional schools at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They were denied on the basis of race, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit. Two weeks after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the University of Florida. The state Supreme Court chose defiance, agreeing that Negro admissions to the university could not be barred, but contending that the federal court had not stated when the first admission would have to occur. By 1956, Hawkins was 50 years old and the only litigant of the original six still fighting.
Tallahassee Bus Boycott
African-Americans in Tallahassee boycotted the bus system for nearly seven months after the arrest of two Florida A&M University (FAMU) students for sitting beside a white woman on a segregated city bus. During the boycott, African-Americans in Tallahassee carpooled to get to and from work and for other necessary transportation. Twenty-one members of the Inter-Civic Council were convicted on charges of operating an illegal transportation system for arranging the car pool without a franchise.
Reverend C.K. Steele, pastor at the Bethel Baptist Church, led the boycott of the city-run bus system. The boycott lasted primarily from May to December of 1956. According to Tallahassee historians Mary Louise Ellis and William Warren Rogers, “[c]ity commissioners and protesting blacks never achieved a formal settlement, but gradually the sight of blacks riding at the front of the bus became more common, and the battle moved to another front.”
Morris Thomas defying segregated bus seating: Tallahassee (1956)
Morris Thomas refused this Tallahassee bus driver's request to move to the back of the bus. Thomas lived in Midway, but was home on leave from the Navy. He heard about a possible demonstration, but did not know it had been called off. December 27, 1956.
African-American preachers who protested segregated bus seating: Tallahassee (1956)
Left to right: Reverend C. K. Steele, John Boardman, and Reverend J. Raymond Henderson of California at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Boardman, a white Florida State University student pursuing a doctorate degree in physics, was expelled because of his involvement with the Inter-Civic Council.
Seth Gaines and his taxi: Tallahassee, Florida (ca. 1950s)
Seth Gaines drove an independent taxi in the 1940s and 1950s. As a result of demands from civil rights activists during the 1956-57 bus boycott, he became the first African-American to drive buses on a regular route for the Cities Transit Company in Tallahassee.
Sit-Ins, Boycotts, and Picketing of Downtown Stores
Tallahassee witnessed several sit-ins in the early 1960s at prominent businesses that maintained “whites only” lunch counters. The first sit-in in Florida’s capital city took place on February 13, 1960. On February 20, 17 students from Florida A&M University (FAMU) and Florida State University (FSU) held a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Tallahassee. When they refused to leave, 11 were arrested and charged with “disturbing the peace by engaging in riotous conduct and assembly to the disturbance of the public tranquility.” In the weeks that followed, additional demonstrations took place at the same Woolworth’s and also at McCrory’s department store.
Sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter: Tallahassee (1960)
Eight of the 11 students opted for “jail over bail” and chose to serve time behind bars as a symbol of the struggle for equality. Among those jailed were Patricia Stephens, the leader of the sit-in, and her sister Priscilla.
While imprisoned, Patricia wrote a letter about her experience and her thoughts on civil rights, which reached leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson. King wrote back to Stephens: “…you are suffering to make men free.” Almost three years later, King authored his own letter from jail inspired by the courageous students from Tallahassee.
Patricia Stephens Due married fellow civil rights activist John Due in 1963 and continued to be a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in Florida.
Three students tried with unlawful assembly in connection with a March 12 lunch counter sit-in demonstration photographed on a street outside city hall in Tallahassee during a recess called because of a bomb threat. They are, left to right, Vecient Moore of Florida A & M University, John J. Poland of Florida State University, and Robert F. Kemp of Florida A & M University.
Florida A&M University students on a protest march: Tallahassee (1960)
Students protesting the arrest of 23 of their classmates who took part in lunch counter demonstrations. The students carry signs reading "Give us back our students,” and “We will not fight mobs.” About 250 students took part in the march, which reportedly was brought under control by tear gas. The man in the black sweater at the far right is William Larkins, FAMU's student government president.
Photographed on March 12, 1960.
Boycott and picketing of downtown stores: Tallahassee (1960)
Photographed here are some of the 220 African-American students who more than filled a circuit court room to face charges of contempt for demonstrating against segregated movie theaters. Circuit Judge Ben Willis ordered the demonstrations halted pending a hearing, but the students, from FAMU, ignored the order and picketed one of the two white-patronage theaters. Police arrested a total of 257.
Photographed on May 31, 1963.
The Tallahassee Ten
In June 1961, Interfaith Freedom Riders challenged segregated interstate buses by traveling from Washington, D.C. to Tallahassee, Florida. After successfully completing the Freedom Ride they planned to fly home but first decided to test whether or not the group would be served in the segregated airport restaurant. As a result, 10 Freedom Riders, later known as the Tallahassee Ten, were arrested for unlawful assembly. They were released on bond following their conviction and sentence later that same month, which was followed by about three years of legal appeals. The 10 original riders returned to Tallahassee to serve brief jail terms in August 1964 and were released after serving four days of their 60-day sentences.
Jailed minister reads support message: Tallahassee (1964)
Accompanying Note: “Rabbi Israel Dresner, of Springfield, New Jersey, one of the nine clergymen jailed on a 60-day sentence rather than pay fines of $500 each, reads messages of support for their integration activities. The group was arrested in 1961 for a restaurant sit-in demonstration and have been free on $1,000 bonds. All but one of the white and Negro ministers are wearing regulation city prison clothing.”
Clergymen, known as the Tallahassee Ten, freed in surprise court action: Tallahassee (1964)
The sleepy town of St. Augustine became a major battleground in the Civil Rights Movement during the summer of 1964. Integrationists staged several nonviolent "wade-ins" at segregated hotel pools and beaches in the St. Augustine area. National civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., came to the Ancient City to support the integrationists. For his role in the St. Augustine demonstrations, King was called before a grand jury to testify on civil rights. The nonviolent tactics of the protestors gradually led to the integration of public recreational facilities in St. Augustine.
Confrontation between integrationists and segregationists at a whites-only beach: St. Augustine (1964)
Florida Memory is funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Florida’s LSTA program is administered by the Department of State's Division of Library and Information Services.