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Sat, 05.26.1956

The Tallahassee Bus Boycott Begins

*On this date in 1956, the Tallahassee bus boycott began. This was a citywide boycott in Tallahassee, Florida that sought to end racial segregation in the employment and seating arrangements of city transit.

In the Jim Crow South, not only were buses segregated, with white riders at the front and black ones in the back, if there were no free black seats black riders had to stand, even if there were free white seats. Furthermore, if there were more white riders than white seats, black riders had to surrender their seats. Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, two Florida A&M University students, boarded a city bus and sat in the only open seats, which were next to a white woman. The driver declared that the two women could not sit where they were sitting, and Jakes agreed to get off the bus if she received her bus fare in return. The driver would not return Jakes' bus fare and drove to a service station, where he then called the police, who subsequently arrested both women. Later that day, the students were bailed out by the Dean of Students.

The day after the incident, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of the women's residence. News of the cross-burning quickly spread throughout the campus, and Student Government Association officers called for a meeting of the student body. The incidents (the cross-burning and the arrest) were discussed in the meeting. Student leaders called for the withdrawal of student support from the bus company and for students to seek participation in the boycott throughout the community.

Reverend C. K. Steele organized a mass meeting that night. In the meeting, the Inter-Civic Council (ICC) was born. Its leaders held weekly meetings and the Council was highly active in civil rights-related activism. Three months into the boycott, the demand for the employment of black bus drivers was met. That still led to arrests of blacks who did not sit in the seats assigned to them. Efforts persisted in resisting bus segregation and enforcement of the ordinance became less strict when blacks again rode the buses.

The NAACP became involved well after the boycott had been started when leaders sent a lawyer to defend drivers of boycotters (carpool drivers) who were arrested for driving unlicensed "for hire" vehicles.  The Inter-Civic Council ended the boycott on December 22, 1956. On January 7, 1957, the City Commission repealed the bus-franchise segregation clause because of the United States Supreme Court ruling Browder v. Gayle (1956). In 1959, members of the Tallahassee InterCivic Council tested the success of the boycott by riding the newly integrated buses; they found that the integration was successful.

Sociologist Lewis Killian points out that organizational and community leaders did not gather until after the initiation of the boycott, which highlights the spontaneity of the student-initiated boycott. The boycott presents an overlooked departure from the circumstances of the Montgomery bus boycott, which was planned and precipitated by active individuals and organizations; in addition, the Tallahassee boycott, at least in its initial stages, was separate from and did not model the latter.


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