C. K. Steele Biography

C. K. Steele

Charles Kenzie
Civil rights activist
Born: February 17, 1914
Birthplace: Bluefield, W. Va.

Steele decided he wanted to become a preacher at an early age. In 1938 he began attending Morehouse College, a well-known all-black college in Atlanta. He then served as minister at churches in Montgomery, Ala., and Augusta, Ga. In 1952, at age 38, he moved to the Bethel Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., where he served as minister until his death in 1980.

In 1956, after two black college students were arrested for sitting in the “whites only” section of a city bus in Tallahassee, he organized a bus boycott. Following the famous example of the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery. Ala., the black community of Tallahassee's act of civil disobedience remained a nonviolent one. Steele remarked of the hostility and violence the boycotters faced at the hands of angry whites: “They have thrown rocks, they have smashed car windows, they have burned crosses. Well, I am happy to state here tonight that I have no fear of them and, praise God, I have no hate for them.” Former Florida governor LeRoy Collins commented years later that “the boycott hurt black people more than it did white people, in the sense that they needed that service more than white people did. But it showed the people of this community that they were very determined to right this wrong.” Two years later, the bus boycott ended triumphantly. Bus service in Tallahassee was finally integrated.

Steele also worked to integrate Tallahassee's schools, restaurants, theaters, and other public facilities. At the same time, he became a national figure in the civil rights movement. In 1957, he helped Martin Luther King organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He served as its vice president, and participated in many national civil rights protests, including the famous march in Selma, Ala. His quest to improve the black community continued for the rest of his life. Two years before his death in 1980, he announced what he still hoped to accomplish: “I'd like to leave Bethel an educational program that will give young people strong character for living,” to make “some kind of impact against economic deprivation,” and to “convince one person in my lifetime that war does not fit into Christian faith.”

Died: Aug. 19, 1980