Sunday, 17 February 2013


In February 2012, Patricia Stephens Due passed away in Georgia, at the age of 72, from cancer. While she may not have lived for as long as she would have liked, she definitely lived a full life – fighting for what she thought was right, and paying sacrifices along the way.

Patricia Gloria Stephens was born in December 1939 in QuincyFlorida to Lottie Mae Powell Stephens and Horace Walter Stephens. She was the second of three children.

At the young age of 13, she showed the courage and determination that would dominate her life, by challenging Jim Crow laws, with her older sister. They tried to purchase their ice cream at the "Whites Only" window of their local Dairy Queen, instead of the "Colored" window.  As high school students, she and Priscilla started a petition to have the principal removed. Patricia said the two were “always testing things.”

1950s Dairy Queen

In 1959, Patricia matriculated to HBCU, Florida A&M University (FAMU), in Tallahassee, Florida, where her sister was already a student. That same year, she formed a local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). It was the beginning of life as ‘a professional volunteer’. She worked with youths, helped out in political campaigns and spoke on human rights issues.

Also, in that year, Patricia and Priscilla attended a non-violent resistance workshop organized by CORE. By February 1960,  the sisters were ready to make a stronger statement, and along with nine, fellow FAMU students, staged a sit-in at the local Woolworths lunch counter, which was ‘Whites Only’.  The sit-in occurred just 19 days after four, Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina (now famously known as The Greensboro Four), had made Civil Rights history by doing the same thing. Unsurprisingly, Patricia, Priscilla and their friends were arrested and fined for their protest.  They were set for a March 17th trial.

Greensboro Four

Lunch Counter Sit-In

On March 12, dozens of FAMU and Florida State University students, who had participated in sit-ins at McCrory’s and Woolworths were arrested. A thousand students began marching from the FAMU campus toward downtown Tallahassee, but were stopped by police officers with teargas. 

Being Teargassed

At the head of the march, Patricia was teargassed in the face, and suffered permanent eye damage. She had to wear dark glasses almost always, day and night, for the rest of her life.

A Young Patricia in Dark Glasses

On March 17th, Patricia and her ten, fellow Woolworths sit-in protesters were tried and found guilty. Patricia and seven others refused to pay the $300 fines for violating laws they hated. They served a 49-day jail sentence, instead.

As leader of the sit-in, Patricia became a national figure. Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's racial barrier, sent Patricia a diary so that she could record her experiences while in jail. 

Jackie Robinson

James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed her efforts. Dr. King sent a telegram saying, “Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity. I assure you that your valiant witness is one of the glowing epics of our time and you are bringing all of America [to] the threshold of the world's bright tomorrows."

It was not easy behind bars. Patricia’s eyes had recently been damaged; and she and her sister, had to share a narrow bed. They suspected that a mentally-challenged woman was deliberately placed in the cell to unnerve them. The food was disgusting. The nights were freezing.

After Patricia was released from jail, she went on a national fund-raising tour; and the ‘jail-in’ became a Civil Rights movement standard.

As a college student, Patricia continued to lead demonstrations to integrate lunch counters, stores, buses, theaters, swimming pools, schools, restaurants, and hotels, and led one of the most dangerous voter registration efforts in the country in northern Florida – and was repeatedly arrested for her actions.

In 1963, she married FAMU law student, John D. Due, Jr.  For their honeymoon, they rode the Freedom Train to Washington DC to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his I Have a Dream speech. John went on to become a prominent civil rights attorney; and they eventually had three daughters, who have become very successful and bore them five grandchildren.

Patricia and John in 1963

John and Patricia were still happily married at the time of her death. They had also established a FAMU scholarship. The John Due and Patricia Stephens Due Freedom Endowed Scholarship provides $1000 annually to a FAMU student who plans to use the legacy of the civil rights movement to do his or her part to make a better nation.

Patricia and John in Later Years

As a young mother, Patricia pushed two children in a stroller while campaigning for the rights of poor people. She took a decade to graduate from FAMU because she was repeatedly suspended from university, due to her arrests for activism. "I was determined that nothing was going to stop me from getting my degree," Patricia later said.

Continuing her protests, Patricia traveled the country speaking up, speaking out, marching, picketing and protesting.

Her FBI file ran more than 400 pages; and she was kicked and threatened with dogs, including a German shepherd whose police handlers gave it a racial slur for a name.

German Shepherds Attacking Civil Rights Protesters

As a veteran of integration and voting rights battles, she went on to fight for economic rights, once blocking a garbage truck in support of striking workers.

As an elder stateswoman of the movement, she wrote a memoir to honor “unsung foot soldiers.” In 2003, Patricia and her daughter, Tananarive, a novelist, wrote Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. The book discusses controversial issues such as Black people’s ambivalence about the civil rights struggle in the movement’s early days and the emotional turmoil of children whose parents are activists. It also contains many tales of courage.

Patricia’s courage certainly did not go unnoticed. Throughout her life, she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Outstanding Leadership, the Gandhi Award for Outstanding Work in Human Relations, and the Florida Freedom Award from the NAACP. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Florida A&M University.

Dr. Patricia Stephens Due, whose belief that, as she put it, “ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” propelled her to leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. She had an amazing story, even if it was not quite as famous as some others’. But, Patricia understood that, knowing that she would leave a legacy. She often liked to say, “Stories live forever. Storytellers don’t.”  

Click here to see a 2-minute news clip about her life, after she passed away.

 Sources: NY Times, Wikipedia, CNN, Google Images, YouTube

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