Title: C. K. Steele, a biography
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Title: C. K. Steele, a biography
Series Title: C. K. Steele, a biography
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Creator: Padgett, Gregory B
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Full Text






A Dissertation submitted to the
Department of History
in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Awarded:
Spring semester, 1994

Copyright Q 1994
Gregory B. Padgett
All Rights Reserved

This dissertation is
dedT ated to my wife
Lorina and my daughter
Danielle Marie.

Gregory B. Padgett, Ph.D.

This biography is a testament to one man's courage and

resolve in the struggle for equality of opportunity. The

Reverend Charles Kenzie Steele, despite threats from

segregationists, harassment from law enforcement and

economic reprisals, never wavered in his commitment to the

cause of civil rights in Florida and the nation. Steele's

contributions to the success of the Civil Rights Movement

have, prior to this study, never been completely documented.

C. K. Steele provided leadership in one of the most

turbulent periods in American history.

The Tallahassee bus boycott began in May, 1956, as a

spontaneous student protest. Steele emerged as the leader

of a city-wide protest involving most of the local African-

American community. As president of the Tallahassee Inter-

Civic Council, Steele conducted a successful desegregation

campaign of the city transit system. The ICC also provided

vital assistance to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

led campaign against segregated public accommodations,

housing and schools in Leon County. Because of Steele's


of the Rteverend Charles Kenzie

one of the most effective

ra. The mass movement Steele

galvanize an entire community

:Council with Steele as its

fn that resulted in the

;portation, housing and local

'allahassee were permanently

cities can lay claim to such

s.This progress was gained

eele and his family.

Steele's place in the history

should be secure, but

total Negro population in We

as compared with a total whi

the state.6 As early as 188(

active in the area. The soc

Negroes in C.K. 's home count

Racism had in post World War

excluded Negroes from member

McDowell County the Negro mi

Negroes were also active in

the Peace and the Constable

black. Most blacks had been

L rL I- I I I I Ir

Steele explained that, 'the al

advantages than he had, and h

that.'- Henry Steele, who ha

acquire an education in his y

especially important. After

Steele attended hiah sch-ol t

Lewis, Black Coal Miners in A

West Virginia had a black pop
McDowell County had by far t

See Janes T. Laing, "Negro Mi

Supreme Court ban on segregation,

rhis tactic would gain national a'

waves of "freedom riders" challen(

bus travel in the deep South. Wh:

postwarr years viewed these signs

knericans in general feared si-n

key position to his most vocal detractor, C.K. answe

'-opponents are quieter when they are kept busy."4' T

strategy did indeed work well for a time. The early

of Steele's ministry at Bethel were generally harmon

except for one episode that Drovided a brief Deriod

Dcal news coverage.

Steele felt his minis

-eak out on behalf of Abr

-aring for C.K.Is safety

evolved .14 They offered a

-w to the city and thus,

Lght indeed be guilty, or

Dr the church members' co

56. Padgett telephone intervi
Flowers, February 20, 1992.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid.

59. Ice interview transcriptE
Steele, January 26, 1978, p. 1.

60. Padgett interview with R
November 12, 1975, Tallahassee, F3

61. Tallahassee Democrat, Ma

The ICC's methods were to be nonviolent direct

confrontation. The immediate goal was the desegregation of

the city's bus service. The ICC formulated three demands to

be conveyed to bus company management; seating was to be on

a first come, first served basis; white drivers were to

treat Negro passengers with courtesy, and Negro drivers were

to be hired for routes through the black community.'o The

ICC threatened to impose the boycott until all of its

demands were met. A plan was devised to provide

transportation to Negro workers, most of whom were

domestics, employed in suburban homes." The City

Commission's first response to the boycott announced by the

IcC was to ignore it. Despite the publication of the ICC's

three conditions in the Tallahassee Democrat, city

commission members stated publicly that they were unaware of

the desires of the Negro community. Charles H. Carter, bus

company manager, publicly announced that his contract with

the city had a segregation clause he could not violate."

Each side of the controversy now plotted their next move.

The protest also had an immediate negative effect on

Steele's home life. After Steele was identified as the

president of the ICC, threats and the intimidation began.

It was directed at the entire family. By phone, by mail,

and sometimes by more direct means the family was subjected

to constant harassment. One of Steele's sons, the Reverend

Henry Marion Steele, recalled that rocks and sometimes


Some of the men who had met se(

officials on May 29, now attempted i

leadership of the ICC. They tried I

that the city commissions proposal

C.K. responded with his characterisl

challenge. He was certain that the

percent to one-half percent to keep the company financially

afloat. The city commission was willing to sacrifice the

$5,000 it received annually from the three-percent tax to

maintain segregation. One fact became clear to the ICC's

leadership. The city commission's claim that it could not

abolish the segregation clause in the bus company's contract

was false. If the commission had the authority to alter the

provisions as well.'

In mid-June the bus company announced a total

suspension of service beginning July 1, due to declining

income. Tallahassee's bus boycott had a more immediate

impact than the protest in Montgomery. Montgomery's bus

boycott, begun six months earlier, had not produced such

dramatic results.b' The ICC sponsored boycott had cost the

company sixty percent of its total revenue. Tallahassee's

black community was beginning to learn the economic power it

possessed. The boycott also demonstrated the high degree of

discipline and cooperation present within Tallahassee's

black community.

The city commission persisted in its efforts to bypass

the ICC as the sole bargaining agent in the bus protest,

continuing its negotiations with the group led by Father

Brooks. In each mass meeting, Steele counseled against any

bitterness or reprisals towards these individuals. He was

determined that the commission would fail in its efforts to


compromise as a defeat. Steele coir

the rallying cry for the boycott:

dignity than ride in humiliation.0'

obvious that none of the city's tact

effect on the bus protest. The bus

initially announced a termination of

1, 1956, was compelled to suspend se

A Democrat editorial on July I repea

in a letter to the editor dated June

"Negro leaders, who have only been i

Tallahassee Democrat, May 27, 1956.

Tallhse Democrat, May 28, 1956. The hou
to Mrs. Eloise Kendrick.

Padgett interview with Mrs. Lora Dixie, May

36. Ice interview transcripts, interview with G. W.
Conoly, August 1, 1978, p. 32.

rne~?~- .rr, I~l author has been

38. Ice interview transcripts, interview with G. W.
Conoly, August 1, 1978, p. 33.

39. Ibid.

40. Padgett interview with C. K. Steele, November 12,
1975 -

41. Padgett interview with Henry Marion Steele,
December 11, 1990.

42. Tallahassee Democrat, June 1, 2, 1956.

43. Tallahassee Democrat, June 5, 1956.

44. Practically all of the persons interviewed for this
study related at least one painful experience aboard a city

bs*45. See Appendix, page 238; this is a standard mass

meeting program.

Protest," _- ii i-r~~. 1r?"- " "
York, 1958,..

48. Padgett interview with C. K. Steele, November 12,

49. Padgett interview with Reverend Steele, April 28,

50. 1 bid.

51. Ice interview tape- Iri r ~.rele, January 26,
1978, special collections, _r, i,. ii-_ I Florida State

52. Padgett interview with Reverend C. K. Steele, April
28, 1976.

53. ICC Diary, June 6, 1956.



drivers and complete desegregation of the city's bi

a July 8, 1956, mass meeting, Brooks tried to conv:

present that segregated bussing should be tested ii

courts.2 Steele countered with the opinion that th

of the Montgomery case made such an action unneces-

believed that a court battle would slow the pace ol

change in Tallahassee.3

Perhaps slowing change Was Father Brooks' intE

he made the suggestion. He seemed uncomfortable wj

pace of events in Tallahassee. Steele and Brooks

considered by most white southerners to be the pr.

source of the radical changes undermining white si

Few seemed capable of understanding that the civi.

protests they were witnessing were locally inspir(

president of both the local chapter of the NAACP c

ICC, Steele was a prime target of investigation b,

Committee. The possibility of such an investigate:

additional pressure when Steele was already facin(

uncertainty of the car pool trial in what was exp

a hostile judicial environment.

The Florida legislature adopted five bills ax

resolutions based upon the recommendations of the

committee in a special session conducted from Jul)

August 1, 1956. House Bill number 24 xx prohibits

integration of public schools. It was supported I

Bill 25 xx which authorized the State Attorney Ger

assist local school boards in resisting integrati(

House also authorized local school boards to closE

school in the public interest." A Senate bill gai

school boards the power to assign pupils and thus

attempts to register Negro students in districts c

for whites.14 Governor Leroy Collins was enpowerec

local enforcement agencies, the Florida Highway Pz

the Florida National Guard to suppress any public

demonstrations deemed a danger to public safety."

The resolutions passed bv the House of Reores

-mocrat, Steele warned that th,

agroes to ride the buses would

i August 27, the day his state

-wspaper, and again on August:

Sthe "for hire-' tag law repla,

-ops the police had employed s:

)ycott. Now the police had a

"You know the older blacks weren't that
unhappy. Because just like you and I,
we were raised in an environment, in an
atmosphere that this is my right place,
this is where I am happy. You take a
semi-intelligent person and put him in a
responsible position, he's lost. You
put him on a bulldozer or something that
was right even with his mentality then
he is delighted, he's happy, he's
reached his peak.""

This very mind-set had spawned segregation and generz

of racist oppression. White supremacists were so bli

their bigotry, it was impossible for them to underste

Civil Rights Movement or the conditions that created

Stereotypes and timeworn rationalization could not

,greeted the undertakers at the

incident in stride, but his famj

, was horrified.

concerned about the outcome of t

il than about threats on his lifE

:hat Governor Leroy Collins, desl

is a fair and decent man, Steele

ig his personal intervention. St

car pool defendants would be tri

n the violation of the "for hire" tag 1-r

ol had been a crucial element in the bus

ss, and Steele did not know if it could I

intained without an alternative means of

for boycott participants. At an October

.K. repeated the ICC's pledge to continue

The police have been the tool used to
keep the Negroes in line. Immediately
after the start of the movement, the
police took it upon themselves to break
up the car pool, and intimidate Negro
drivers. Senseless arrests were made,
and immoderately heavy fines imposed for
minor violations s much as
professional Southerners may dislike and
deplore outside interference, it now
appears that it is only by appealing to
,outsiders, including the federal
courts, that justice will be rendered.

serve notice that it did not mean the end of the

He told the press, "The war is not over we are st:

walking.'-' The city's court victory did not mark

the legal battles over the bus boycott. The ICCI:

filed an appeal immediately following the trial.

interposition in opposite
number 31 xx was a decla
the House of Rep~resentat
August 1, 1956, p. 23.

17. Ibid.

18. See House Memor
House of Representatives
83. The legacy of resen
Reconstruction policies
were disenfranchised ins

19. See House Bill
Representatives Extraord

20. Padgett intervi

x invoked nullification and
ion to the Brown decision.
ration of states rights. Jc
ives Special Session July 22

ial number 82 xx Journal of
Special Session July 27, 19
tment originating with
in the South when many natiN
pired this particular legisl

76 xx Journal of the House c
inary Sessions July 27, 1956

ew with Daisey Young, Octobe

Collins, September 23 i-:, :I?
was lost after C. K. .! ,~,r

55. Taallahass e Democrat, October 1

56. Tallahassee Democrat, October I

57. Speech/sermon delivered at the
held at little St. Mary Baptist Church,
ICC Diary.

58. ICC Diary, October 17, 1956.

mount a sustained voter registration campaign. f

Lce in his study, The Ner and Southern Politics,

1957 that "the Negro church is still one of the r

)Ular meeting places for political rallies. 12 Witl

imunity already in the habit of attending biweekly

stings, the organizational apparatus could be quic

ered to meet any new endeavor. Price's study als

ntified the other factors necessary f- hl-k -r

with the Supreme Court's decision on desegregatic

attendance at the conference were openly hostile

notion of speeding up the process of desegregation

Attorney General Richard Ervin of Florida was amc

who wanted to slow down the pace of change. Ervj


Brownell's action would cause more harm
than good and that the federal
government had no authority to start
against our state. Mr. Brownell ought
to stay out of it and leave it to
private litigants . .. The courts
will handle this in the usual way

be confronted directly. On Chi

Steele, A. C. Reed and H. McNec

only-' section of a city bus.

present that "Before I will be

s determination to desegregate

second "integrated" ride for the

cameramen. Steele knew that n

could be helpful in bringing p

thorities.22 The experience of

ry, Alabama, had proven that fa

ional media coveraare also incre

Rather than intensify this daz

called off this particular -Iii

'-I was not afraid for yyself ,

the reputation of the movement

it similar to that suffered by the

ious phone callers threatened to

if he did not withdraw from the c

nt was told, "We'll give you till

unce that you are withdrawing from

yed an unflinching courage similar

g the bus protest. Dupont's answe

no need to answer, just wait unti

e what the answer's gon be."m Dup

18, 1957. He was acutely aware of how Alabama had forc(

the NAACP out of the state. There was concern that the

IcC's membership roster might be subpoenaed and used to

harass boycott participants. As a countermeasure, most

the ICC's records were destroyed before Steele gave his

testimony to the legislative investigation committee.71

a mass meeting the night before his scheduled committee

hearing, Steele said, "The legislative committee --m-me

members were associated with e

Df University Professors or th~

association which was the natil

teachers.16 The cause of greatly

was the ATA's resolution to doi

.rated the paternalistic i

'ners. He asked, "How is

as faculty members are c,

with other state owned I

iswered, "It is among the

'.. Hawes probably echoe,

overnnent officials when

lar reason out there why

i relation to the treatmei

teachers in Pinellas County.-"

individuals and I'subversives"

indicates a preoccupation with

in southern society. After th

on the afternoon of February 1

bus protest and a new response

Atlanta on business.

Leadership Conference on Transport

Integration.1117 Martin Luther Kinc

president of this new organization

because of his performance in Kinc,

serve as executive vice president.

be relied upon in a crisis. The I

had led the first southern bus bol

1953, was elected secretary.'9 Wit

administrative structure in place,

second conference for February 14,

noted that, "Most of SCLC's founders were NAACP mem]

many, like Steele were branch presidents.""'

There are other possible explanations for the

conflict between the two organizations. Both were

to the cause of civil rights but operated in differ(

arenas. Traditionally, the NAACP had fought racial

injustice through litigation. organizations such as

Montgomery Improvement Association and Tallahassee I

civic Council placed their emphasis on non-violent c

Their activities and leadership were locally based.

NAACP often provided support in the form of funds ar

advice without being involved in the direct non-viol

confrontation with segregated institutions. Negroe

have to face the problem of divided loyalty because

activities of the NAACP and SCLC's member organizati

complimented each other. It was for this reason, rz

than SCLC's affiliate structure that garnered its ac

in the Negro community.m

Although the activities of the NAACP and the SC

complimented each other, personal rivalries between

individuals in the two organizations could spark coy

As a result. cooperation between the NAACP and SCT.C

Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Alabama. Steele continued in

his post as executive vice president, while sustaining the

bus boycott in Tallahassee. The task was made more

difficult by events in Little Rock, Arkansas, and yet

another strategy by the white power structure in


The last three months of 1957 passed without any loca.

newspaper coverage of the Tallahassee boycott. Very much

aware of what media coverage had done for the bus protest

Montgomery, Steele said, local news agencies were

"encouraged" to de-emphasize the boycott in Tallahassee.41

many whites apparently hoped the ICC's boycott would die ii

)rget. The civil rights protests forced American soci

,confront the ugliness of racial bigotry.

On May 27, 1957, the ICC celebrated its first boyc

anniversary with a five-day program. Martin Luther Kin

-.1 A.M.E. Bishop D. Ward Nichols, and Congressman Cha

,ggs were among those in attendance. In his anniversa

)eech Steele told his audience that,

.n an interview conducted on February 16, 1978, t

people here, who hate my guts now.'-10 During tI

the boycott in 1957, a group of Negroes

fully petitioned Steele to accept a compromise c

,tt." Steele said, "I have a petition signed by

or 20 men, four or five of the., my deacons, ask

ipromise.1" After Steele's refusal, this group a

led by Frederick Blackshear, bitterly opposed

ministry at Bethel Baptist Church.51

mately, it was white terror and violence which

maintain unity in the Negro community. These

al methods of maintaining white supremacy stiffer

les' resolve. There were no dramatic

ments that Negroes were achieving equal status;

commitment. SCLC, the new org;

establish in 1957, would prove

Rebels on his Deacon Board wou:

to sow discontent in Bethel's

travel and physical stress als

effect on C. K.'s health. The

rrendered,-1 said C.K. "I was utterly surrE

die. It just didn't matter anymore, becai

use, I'm in his hands, what do I have to fE

ind faith of C.K. 's sustained him through-u

Years later Steele remembered that, "I I

civil rights struggle, there could be no compromise.

noted that because of his uncompromising persistence

whites and some blacks had accused him of being immoc

and unreasonable.'o But given, the long history of

injustice created by segregation, Steele said, "I sa

room in those demands (for desegregation) for any

compromise."" He explained that, "I really felt that

could adhere and if we could get enough people to adh

love and non-violence that we would be victorious in

end. "`

The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement also cl

recognized the historical significance of their actic

They believed that what they were doing transcended

America's racial problems. The struggle of America's

Negroes for equality had a universal importance. It

struggle for all humanity. Steele described his vieu

follows, "I thought that we were in a period where op

and segregated black people of the South had an oppor

to fill a messianic role not just for America, but fo

world. And that we had the opportunity to really

demonstrate that love is more powerful than hate.""

always saddened C.K. that many Negroes failed to gras

significance of the events occurring around them and

resisted change. The opposition from within Bethel's

board was particularly painful, but Steele never expr

country the brutal lengths to wh:

willing to go to stop integration

event forced the issue into the ]

discomfort of the Kennedy adminii

from local civil rights leaders :

Freedom Rides, CORE was unprepar(

violence." After CORE decided t,

Ride in Alabama, SNCC members fr(

accepted the challenge and resold

Ride Project. SNCCIS leadership

ion of its activities by the Johns

ITallahassee was aided by Steele w

ae affiliate in 1959."] He acted as

:ephens, a FAMU student. She had

3 summer workshop in 1959. After tI

5ted that CORE field secretary James

Lahassee in the fall of 1959 to helr

membership in CORE violated all of the traditional stand

of southern race relations.

As the principal leader of local civil rights

activities in Tallahassee, Steele was an invaluable resou

to the efforts of CORE and its president, Patricia

Stephens. Not all the local Negro ministers were as

supportive as C. K. Steele. But on occasion, he too

sought to curb what he considered to be reckless actions

members of CORE. Reverend Dan Speed recalled a dispute h

and Steele had with John Due (now the husband of Patricia

Stephens) over protest tactics. Speed said both Stephens

and Due thought the ICC's leadership was moving too

Slowly.41 Speed noted it was easier to restrain the

overzealous members of CORE when Steele was present. .,We

Reverend Steele was a good voice and when he was present

could do a lot," Speed said. "But, a lot of his time was

away at various speaking (engagements) to get money for


on February 21, 1960, Steele's association with CORE

became a matter of personal concern. That day two of his

sons, Charles Kenzie Jr. and Henry Marion were arrested a

son Ice in a 1978 interview that,

If you just work along within the system
and slowly and gradually these things
will come to pass. I think that my
rights as a middle-class tax paying
Caucasian male is being infringed on
every day. But I'm not going to get me
a little plaque and run down the street,
cause my dad taught me a long time ago
that fool's names like monkey's faces
was always seen in public places and
I've had an abhorrence to public

commission's statement was released. Rudd declined t

hear any pleas and sentenced the eleven to either jail

or $300 fines. All of the defendants except Charles I

Jr. and Henry Marion chose to remain in jail. C.K.'s

paid their fines and were released. Lois Steele's emc

state had much to do with their decision.71

on March 19, 1960, Governor Leroy Collins announce

intent to address the racial issue on television. Pet

with some advance knowledge of the content of Collin's

speech, a group of black ministers including Reverend

Steele, Dan Speed and Father Brooks delayed a planned

demonstration until after the governor's address.

Collins' speech on statewide television on March

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