Members of the University and local community paid tribute to the pioneers of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott on its 60th anniversary during the Charles U. Smith, Ph.D. Panel Discussions at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) on May 26.
The program, which took place in the University’s Grand Ballroom, was sponsored by the City of Tallahassee and Star Metro.
The Tallahassee Bus Boycott began in 1956 after FAMU students Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, sat in City bus seats normally occupied by white passengers. When asked to move by the driver they refused, referencing the standing room only conditions in the back of the bus and their fatigue. After the bus driver denied their request to receive a bus fare refund, they were arrested and charged with insinuating a riot.
Shauna Smith, daughter of Charles U. Smith, Ph.D., and a recently retired professor from Tallahassee Community College said the program helped recognize one of the most important civil rights events in Tallahassee. She also recognized the tireless efforts of the unsung heroes of the boycott.
“Today, we want to also recognize all of the foot soldiers who may have gone unnamed, who may not have had a title, but were still out there providing homes, providing safe havens,” Smith said.
Panelists during the discussion included Eddie Barrington, a 1956 Inter-Civic Council (ICC) Charter member and boycott foot solider and Rev. Henry Marion Steele, son of Rev. C. K. Steele, the first vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
While speaking to the crowd gathered at the event, Tallahassee Mayor and FAMU alumnus Andrew Gillum reminded everyone of the progress Tallahassee has made over the years, saying that a city that once had segregated buses and segregated ordinances on the books was able to change as a result of the activity that took place with the boycott.
“I now get to call myself mayor of this very same city. We do this in remembrance, and also to remind us of the charge that we still have to keep as a community. The charge that we still have to keep in our individual lives, in our professional lives and in our faith led lives to make sure that we don’t leave the challenges that we have today for another generation to deal with,” Gillum said.
Gillum made special reference during his comments to FAMU alumnus Col. (Ret.) Brodes Hartley, the former SGA President who spearheaded the boycott. Soon after learning of the arrests of Jakes and Patterson, Hartley convened a group of 2,000 students in Lee Hall Auditorium on campus. During the meeting the students voted to take action against the City’s Bus Lines.
“He was one of the first former SGA Presidents I met when I was the SGA President of Florida A&M University,” Gillum said. The tradition of Florida A&M University and its students is that we always strike from the top. No matter what the challenges are at the time, we rise to that occasion and do the very best that we can in dealing with it,” he added.
The discussion was one of several events planned throughout the day, which also included a symbolic march from the Grand Ballroom to FAMU Way where another event with food, entertainment and an unveiling of a Star Metro Bus in tribute to the boycott took place.
David Jackson, Ph.D., Associate Provost of Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate College at FAMU said the boycott was among the first examples of significant student activism within the Civil Rights Movement in America, citing that the event took place nearly three years before four students at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, N.C. began sit-ins at Woolworths.
“We should remember the names Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson because when they sat beside a white woman in front of that bus on May 26, 1956 and refused to move to the back, it set in motion what would become the Tallahassee Bus Boycott,” Jackson said. “FAMU students were on the cutting edge of this kind of student activism and have continued to lead.”