February 7, 2012
ATLANTA, Ga. ? Patricia Stephens Due, 72, long-time civil rights leader whose activities spanned from Tallahassee to Miami, and across the nation, has died after a valiant, two-year fight with cancer that exemplified her life.
"We are deeply sadden by the death of Mrs. Due and have lost one of the nation's foot soldiers for social justice and the civil rights movement," said FAMU President James H. Ammons. "It was the work of Mrs. Due that inspired generations of Rattlers to stand up and fight for their beliefs. We will never forget her contributions to this city, state and nation, which spurred a national movement. She was a courageous woman and we are proud to call her a FAMUan."
Due died two weeks shy of the 52nd anniversary of her leading role in the student sit-ins in Tallahassee, Fla. in February 1960. As a 20-year-old college student and founding member of the local chapter of the inter-racial group Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Due, along with her sister, Priscilla, and three other Florida A& M University (FAMU) students spent 49 days in jail rather than pay fines after being arrested for sitting at a Woolworth lunch-counter, launching the nation's first "jail-in" during the civil rights movement.
The jail-in became one of the most powerful tactics used during the civil rights movement. While in jail, Due received a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stating: 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.
As word of Due's declining health began to spread last year, state and local Florida officials honored and recognized her for her significant contributions to the nation's history. Tallahassee Mayor John R. Marks, III issued a proclamation declaring May 11, 2011 as "Patricia Stephens Due Day" and personally read the proclamation to her in her hospital room before presenting it to her family at the City Commission meeting. Earlier that month on May 6, the Leon County Board of County Commissioners issued a proclamation recognizing Due "for her courageous assertion of the right of our African-American citizens to equal treatment under the law, which challenges us all to protect and expand that right." Florida Gov. Rick Scott sent Due a letter on June 9, 2011, recognizing her "impact as a civil rights pioneer" and her "lifetime of advocacy and commitment to achieving racial justice in America."
The government proclamations recognized that because of Due's leadership the "demonstrations were orderly and peaceful, and models of nonviolent protest, despite her and others being subjected to harsh law enforcement measures, racially-charged insults, repeated jailings, and physical violence."
Scott recognized Due's actions as "a significant moment in our country's history and... an incredible source of inspiration still today."
During her jailing and a subsequent national speaking tour to bring attention to discrimination in the South, in addition to King, Due was lauded by Jackie Robinson (who sent her a diary to record her experiences in jail), Mrs. Daisy Bates (of the Little Rock 9), James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, publisher John H. Johnson, and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, among others.
Roosevelt said in a fundraising letter for CORE that Due's "courage deserves our admiration and respect and it gives us confidence that nothing will stop the winning of full equality so long as citizens like Patricia Stephens are prepared to make such a sacrifice."
Due's civil rights activities nearly derailed her college education. She led rallies on the campus and marches through Tallahassee. She was arrested for protesting in Tallahassee, St. Petersburg, Ocala, Miami and New York. She became a CORE field secretary overseeing voter registration and voter education drives in 10 northern Florida counties. Due amassed a 400-page FBI file because of her activities.
Throughout her life, she wore dark glasses because her eyes became sensitive to light after a police officer lobbed a teargas bomb in her face in 1960.
Due's mother, Lottie Powell Stephens Hamilton, and stepfather Marion M. Hamilton, were afraid for her safety and wanted her to focus on her education. Her stepfather, who as Due's high school civics teacher, had been the one to teach her about her rights and responsibilities as an American citizen, wrote her letters urging her to abandon her civil rights activities and concentrate on getting her education. He was not only afraid for her safety but also worried that her civil rights activities might cost him his job. Due herself was conflicted. She wanted to do well in school because her family believed very strongly in education and all of the siblings of her stepfather (of the renowned Hamilton family of Atlanta, Georgia) had graduate degrees, but she could not ignore the injustices of segregation.
She and other activists tried to schedule their protests around class time, but they could not plan for arrests and jail. FAMU administrators, under pressure from the state of Florida's Board of Control (later Board of Regents), suspended Due several times.
Due eventually was permitted to re-enroll and finally graduated in 1965.
"I was determined that nothing was going to stop me from getting my degree," she said.
In 2006, Due's alma mater bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters recognizing her five decades of social activism. For Due, receiving the honorary doctorate was a tribute to all of the student foot soldiers who were not able to continue their educations.
Due said at the time: "At our ages when entering college, we were still children and FAMU was our surrogate parent, and time after time, we were punished for our 'behavior,' and now, they are embracing us and saying, "well done, well done."
Due remained a steadfast fighter against social injustice, inspiring generations of students through lectures, presentations, voting drives and workshops. Scott praised Due in his letter to her, saying, "Over the years, you have spoken out and inspired individuals of all backgrounds to seek freedom from oppression and discrimination through lectures and peaceful demonstrations."
Due's last public speaking appearance was on February 16, 2011, when she and her husband John D. Due Jr., an attorney and civil rights activist, were the featured speakers at the University of Florida in an event called "An Evening with the Dues: Pioneers in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement." When announcing their wedding in 1963, a Florida newspaper dubbed the couple as "Mr. and Mrs. Civil Rights."
Due was able to participate in a vow renewal ceremony with her husband for their 49th wedding anniversary on Jan. 5, 2012, surrounded by her family and the nursing staff. She was overcome with emotion although she was unable to speak.
Due was profiled in The History Channel's award-winning "Voices of Civil Rights" in 2006, and is listed in more than books describing her civil rights involvement.