On this day in 1956, FAMU students Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson sat on a city bus in Tallahassee, Florida. and began what would become a seven-month boycott of the transit system. Through the efforts of a local church leader and civic groups, protesters were able to get Black drivers hired and integrate the bus lines.
Jakes and Patterson sat next to a white woman and were promptly ordered to move to the colored section of the bus. When they refused, the driver pulled into a gas station and called police to arrest the pair. Word of the incident moved Rev. C.K. Steele to mobilize a boycott on behalf the Black riders in the city tired of the racist law. Students at FAMU also staged their own manner of protests, garnering national attention.
Rev. Steele helped form the Inter-Civic Council, also known as the ICC, and the group helped manage the nuances of the citywide boycott. The more famous Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, which began in December of 1955, continued on as well, ultimately lasting over a year. In both cities, the protests had significant financial impact as Black riders made up the bulk of the city bus line’s customer base. Tallahassee’s city council attempted to appease the boycott organizers but fell short of promising to hire Black drivers or to integrate.
Even with the eventual passage of a federal law stating that bus segregation was illegal, Tallahassee still resisted. This called for drastic measures by the ICC. Throughout the protests, the ICC organized car pools for riders so they wouldn’t miss work and other important engagements.
Police targeted these riders and slapped them with bogus traffic violations and other trumped-up charges. Members of the ICC began riding in segregated sections of buses and even employing white members to help in the protests by encouraging interracial seating arrangements.
These actions made Rev. Steele and other leaders the target of hostility by angry Southern whites. There was even a statement from the commission saying they wanted to keep the segregated laws in place for “health and safety reasons.”
Unbowed, the Black citizens of Tallahassee pressed on and by the following summer bus integration became the norm. Although no formal agreement was struck, it went without saying that the battle of bus seating became a losing battle for those in favor of segregation. The boycott led to other important measures during the civil rights movement.
(Photo: Florida Memory Project)