The first vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Reverend C. K. Steele shared Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of social equality through nonviolent means. As president of the Inter-Civic Council, Steele led a successful bus boycott in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, based on the example set by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Although not widely noted, the efforts of the Inter-Civic Council offered hope to those engaged in what Steele described as “the pain and the promise” of the civil rights movement (Steele, 27 September 1978). He later stated: “Where there is any power … as strong [and] as eternal as love using nonviolence, the promise will be fulfilled” (Steele, 27 September 1978).
Born on 7 February 1914, Steele was raised in the predominantly African American town of Gary, West Virginia, by his parents Lyde Bailor and Henry L. Steele, a miner with the United States Steel and Coal Corporation. Steele began preaching at the young age of 15. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1935, and three years later earned his BA degree from Morehouse College. After nearly a year of service at Friendship Baptist Church in northeast Georgia, Steele was called to Hall Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, during the spring of 1939. In 1941 he married Lois Brock. Steele spent nine years in Montgomery and four at Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, before accepting the pastorate at Bethel Baptist Church in Tallahassee in 1952.
While serving as head of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, Steele was also elected president of the Inter-Civic Council (ICC), an organization formed in May 1956, to direct a bus boycott initiated by black students at Florida A&M University. The ICC absorbed members from all walks of life within the black community, involving laborers, domestic workers, ministers, professionals, businessmen, and teachers. As in Montgomery, the ICC held mass meetings and organized a carpool. Unlike the MIA, which sought to modify existing seating rules, the ICC demanded the full integration of passengers on city buses.
After months of police harassment of the ICC carpool, city officials charged 22 organizers and drivers with operating a transportation system without a franchise, and a municipal judge levied an $11,000 fine against the ICC. In response boycott participants began walking, and the ICC welcomed the Supreme Court’s November 1956 decision in Browder v. Gayle, which declared bus segregation unconstitutional. Following the decision the ICC called an end to the seven-month boycott. As blacks attempted to ride the buses, violence and intimidation of boycott leaders heightened. Eventually, Tallahassee’s bus company did not enforce desegregated seating rules, and the ICC shifted its attention to voter registration and to the desegregation of local stores.
In 1956 Steele joined King as a speaker at nonviolence workshops held at the Tuskegee Institute, the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention, and MIA’s Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change. At SCLC’s founding meeting in 1957, Steele was elected the organization’s vice president. In March 1960 Steele’s son, Henry, was among eight students who chose to go to jail after a demonstration at a Tallahassee chain store. King, evidently pleased by Henry’s actions, sent the elder Steele a telegram that read: “Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity” (Papers 5:391).
Although SCLC never launched a major campaign in Tallahassee, Steele supported its efforts in other cities. In Albany, Georgia (see Albany Movement), in 1962, Steele led demonstrations while King was incarcerated. Steele also contributed to the Poor People’s Campaign. After King’s assassination, Steele and other ICC members organized a “Vigil for Poverty” in Tallahassee to recognize individuals who lacked the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, education, and employment. C. K. Steele continued his civil rights activism and his ministry at Bethel Baptist Church until he lost his battle with cancer on 19 August 1980.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Fendrich, Ideal Citizens, 1993.
King to Steele, 19 March 1960, in Papers 5:391–392.
Gregory B. Padgett, “C. K. Steele, A Biography.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1994.
Rabby, Pain and the Promise, 1999.
Steele, “Non-Violent Resistance: The Pain and the Promise,” 27 September 1978, FTaSU.