Patricia Stephens Due, who fought for civil rights in Florida, dies at 72

February 15, 2012

Patricia Stephens Due, who was jailed for leading sit-ins, marches and other protests, making her one of the most prominent women at the vanguard of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, died Feb. 7 at a nursing facility in Smyrna, Ga. She was 72 and had thyroid cancer, her daughter Johnita Due said.

Mrs. Due wrote a book about her civil rights activism with another of her daughters, novelist Tananarive Due.

In February 1960, Mrs. Due was a 20-year-old student at Florida A&M University when she and her older sister Priscilla joined a series of sit-ins at a Woolworth’s store in Tallahassee. They hoped to end the store’s policy of serving only white customers at its lunch counter.

On Feb. 20, 1960, the two sisters and nine other demonstrators were met by a phalanx of police officers at the Woolworth’s and arrested. They were convicted of disorderly conduct and sentenced to either a $300 fine or 60 days in jail.

The sisters and several others chose to go to jail.

They drew attention to their cause by staging what came to be known as a “jail-in” and refusing to pay any bail or fines. They remained in Leon County Jail for 49 days.

“She was among the first to use the ‘jail, no bail’ strategy,” said Raymond O. Arsenault, a professor at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg and the author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” “The core strategy was to break down the system with mass arrests. It was the same kind of spirit that animated the Freedom Rides of 1961.”

Mrs. Due and her fellow prisoners in Tallahassee received encouragement from former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, baseball star Jackie Robinson, and civil rights and cultural figures James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram, in which he wrote: “As you suffer the inconvenience of remaining in jail, please remember that unearned suffering is redemptive. I assure you that your valiant witness is one of the glowing epics of our time and you are bringing all of America nearer to the threshold of the world’s bright tomorrows.”

Once they were released, Mrs. Due and her sister went on a nationwide speaking tour.

“We chose to go to jail instead of paying for segregation,” Mrs. Due told the Miami Herald in 2006, “which is what we felt we would be doing if we paid the fines.”

Soon after the lunch-counter demonstration, Mrs. Due led a march of 1,000 Florida A&M students toward the downtown business district of Tallahassee, only to have a police officer throw a canister of tear gas in her face.

Temporarily blinded, she suffered permanent damage to her eyes and would wear dark glasses, indoors and out, for the rest of her life.

She was later sentenced to six months in jail for attempting to integrate a Tallahassee movie theater in 1963. She watched as her sister was kicked in the stomach by a police officer while leading a “wade-in” at a public swimming pool reserved for white residents. As a result, local officials closed the pools for four years rather than allow them to be integrated.

“People always misunderstood what the struggle was about,” Mrs. Due told the Herald in 1990. “It was never about black rights. It was a fight for human dignity.”

Patricia Gloria Stephens was born Dec. 9, 1939, in Quincy, Fla., and grew up primarily in Belle Glade, Fla., a farming town 45 miles west of Palm Beach. Her mother was a Democratic Party official and later a guidance counselor, and her stepfather was a teacher and school administrator.

Mrs. Due began her life of activism at 13, when she refused to go to the “colored” section of an ice cream stand. In 1959, she and her sister learned about nonviolent forms of protest at a meeting of the Congress of Racial Equality in Miami. The sisters established a chapter of CORE at Florida A&M and became two of the leading women on the front lines of civil rights demonstrations in the South.

“She was absolutely fearless, both she and her sister,” Arsenault said. “She personified the best of the moral and physical courage of these activists.”

Mrs. Due graduated from Florida A&M in 1965 and continued her crusade for civil rights after settling in Miami with her husband, civil rights lawyer John D. Due Jr.

Mrs. Due’s 2003 memoir with her daughter, “Freedom in the Family,” received widespread acclaim.

Survivors include her husband of 49 years, of Quincy, Fla.; three daughters, Tananarive Due and Johnita P. Due, both of Atlanta, and Lydia Due Greisz of Dallas; her sister, Priscilla Stephens Kruize of Miami; a brother, Walter Stephens of Atlanta; and five grandchildren.

In later years, Mrs. Due led civil rights workshops and voter registration efforts. Reflecting on her legacy in 2003, she said: “I didn’t look at it as making history. It was just something we needed to do.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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