Tallahassee Student Sit-in

Black History Heroes | Tallahassee Student Sit-in
Posted on 02/13/2020
Tallahassee students sit-in at Woolworth counter

Prior to the Tallahassee student sit-ins of 1960, the Tallahassee Bus Boycott took place in 1956, patterned after the Montgomery Bus Boycott that started with the refusal of Rosa Parks to surrender her bus seat to a white person. Tallahassee was sometimes called the “little Mississippi” where segregation was prominent.


During the summer of 1959, Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, two Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Florida A&M, a Black school at the time) students, entered a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) workshop at Miami University. They brought a CORE chapter back to Florida A&M.


They tried out various little CORE projects such as picketing around Tallahassee—both successfully and unsuccessfully. A series of other “tests” were also followed, including sit-ins. There was no major publicity, and not much is known about these early actions.


On February 1, 1960, four African American students performed a sit-in against segregation at a Woolworth lunch counter in North Carolina, also known as the Greensboro Sit-ins of 1960 (see “Greensboro, NC, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”). In response, eight Florida A&M and high school students sat-in at the local Woolworth counter for 2.5 hours on February 13, 1960. No one was arrested.


A week later on Saturday, February 20, a group of 11 students returned to the lunch counter in Tallahassee. This time counteractive tactics were ready. The police squad, led by the Mayor of Tallahassee, asked them to leave. When the group refused, they were arrested. A local minister, Rev. Daniel B. Speed bailed the students out.


The group was charged with “disturbing the peace by riotous conduct” and “unlawful assembly.” Five other charges were dropped by the time of the trial. All were found guilty. They could either pay a 300-dollar fine or serve 60 service days. All but 3 chose service—an incident of “jail-versus-bail.”


Florida A&M students conducted a sit-in again on March 5, and then again on the 12th. White students from Florida State University (FSU) joined both sit-ins. Some 240 students of both races were arrested. Later in the day of the 12th, some 1,000 Florida A&M students in groups of 75 headed downtown with posters. The marchers asked for the release of the students. The Local Citizen Council barred the students’ approach to a store with a group of variously armed white men. The students turned back, but six more students were arrested.


In different parts of Tallahassee, several students gathered in response to the massive arrests. The mayor announced a 3-minute warning for the group to disperse. Before the allotted time was up, the police used tear gas. Several female students were hospitalized with burns. The governor ordered students confined to the campus. CORE did not officially organize or conduct these marches. 11 were convicted—6 blacks, 5 whites. They spent Easter in jail. No arrests were made on the armed white counter-forces.


During these actions when the students gathered to participate in or to support the sit-in, the mayor would order pickets and sitters to leave. The white harassers that were against the sit-in were not molested by the police. The picketers and sitters were arrested if they did not leave the scene.


By this time the state officials urged the students to stop in order to prevent the Florida’s Interracial Committee from weakening. Further campaigning would throw the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary to a segregationist candidate Farris Bryant. He won regardless. A series of visits to city officials and merchants followed this détente, backed up by a general boycott of the downtown chain stores. The boycott continued well into 1961. The Florida Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an interracial committee, endorsed the campaign. However, it failed to secure any results. Many reluctant and scared supporters of the sit-ins viewed this committee as an excuse to drop out of actively supporting the sit-ins, but were rather content with only participating in the general boycott.


CORE decided to continue its sit-ins until December of 1960. They were alone, and were not generally supported. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), instead, continued to boycott most downtown chain stores and published every so often “Traitor Lists” of blacks who had been “buying segregation.”


CORE was not recognized by Florida A&M as an on-campus group for its active protests.


NAACP was recognized, however, for it refrained from open activity. At FSU, at least one white student was expelled for his participation in the sit-ins. By early 1961, the sit-ins were almost at a standstill, and the Florida A&M CORE chapter dwindled, mostly due to its lack of support from outside for more direct action other than boycotting.


There were many possible reasons for the lack of success and growth in the Tallahassee sit-in movement, such as: a very small and powerless black middle class, mostly only of ministers; sporadic and weakened student power in reorganizing; lack of a black newspaper and black attorney in the area; overall unstable black community class structure; lack of any independent black group that could effectively support the students financially or legally.

NAACP Logo graphic

SDIRC would like to thank the Indian River County NAACP Branch #5151 for providing the content in today's 'Black History Heroes' biography.