MIAMI — Patricia Stephens Due, a lifelong Florida civil rights crusader who led 1960s-era demonstrations and voter-registration drives, went to jail for trying to integrate a lunch counter, and suffered permanent eye damage from a police assault, died Tuesday. She was 72.
She’d just celebrated her 49th wedding anniversary to attorney John D. Due Jr., her partner in activism, and was about to mark the 52nd anniversary of the Feb. 20, 1960, Tallahassee lunch-counter sit-in that brought Due and her sister, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, to the attention of civil rights giants like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and baseball’s Jackie Robinson.
Born Dec. 9, 1939, in Quincy, Fla., she died of thyroid cancer at a Smyrna, Ga., nursing home, surrounded by loved ones who sang spirituals and civil rights movement anthems.
While she remained active in human rights causes, Due spent most of her time telling her story to documentarians, and lecturing about the history she lived. She was profiled in The History Channel’s “Voices of Civil Rights” in 2006, and is referenced in more than 20 books about the movement.
After 40 years in Miami-Dade County, Due and her husband returned to Quincy in 2005, where they kept Great Danes.
“She loved to appear in front of students,” said Tananarive Due, one of her three daughters.
In 2003, they co-wrote “Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights,” in which Patricia Due explained that “the stories of the foot soldiers who believed that their involvement could make the United States live up to its ideals of liberty, freedom and justice for all had to be told.”
The book won the Southeast Regional African-American Heritage Preservation Alliance’s 2003 Written History Award. She received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Outstanding Leadership, Florida A&M University’s Gandhi Award for Outstanding Work in Human Relations, and NAACP Florida Freedom Award.
“She would say that it only takes one or two people,” Tananarive Due said. “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
Patricia Stephens Due was living proof.
She grew up in Belle Glade. Her mother, Lottie Houston, had been a Democratic committeewoman. Her stepfather served on a biracial civic committee. In high school, Due and sister Priscilla started a petition to depose their school principal, and were “always testing things,” Kruize told The Miami Herald in 1990.
As teens, Kruize recalled, “we would go to the Dairy Queen. They had two sides — the black, no, sorry, colored — and the white. We would always go to the white side, and we were always served, because everybody knew us. We would go into stores and try things on, and we had no problem. But as soon as we told our friends, ’Look, you can do this, too,’ then sometimes there was trouble.”
During a 1959 Miami vacation, the sisters attended a CORE meeting — Congress of Racial Equality — and learned about planned sit-ins.
“I was so excited,” Due told The Herald many years later. “This was the first time I had been in an interracial group with a philosophy that showed you how to do things in a very orderly and nonviolent way. I just couldn’t imagine what could be better.”
The sisters returned to FAMU and founded Tallahassee’s CORE chapter. In early 1960, the sisters, several fellow students, and a local maid were arrested for taking seats at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter near campus.
The sisters and three others spent 49 days of a 60-day sentence behind bars, refusing to pay $300 in fines. Their decision came to be known as the first “jail-in.”
“We chose to go to jail instead of paying for segregation, which is what we felt we would be doing if we paid the fines,” Due told The Herald in 2006.
National figures voiced support, including the writer James Baldwin, singer Harry Belafonte and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. King sent the jailed students a telegram: “Through your decision you have again proven that there is nothing more majestic and sublime than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of freedom.”
FAMU suspended her, and not for the last time. She finally graduated in 1965. In 2006, FAMU awarded Due an honorary doctorate degree.
In 1960, Due was hit in the face by a police tear-gas canister. From then on, she wore sunglasses to protect her damaged eyes. But she never complained about the sacrifices.
“People always misunderstood what the struggle was about,” Due told The Miami Herald in 1990. “It was never about black rights. It was a fight for human dignity.”