All The King’s Men: Patricia Stephens Due

The New York Times

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 — but at a price, including 49 days in a stark Florida jail — died on Tuesday in Smyrna, Ga. She was 72.

The cause was thyroid cancer, her daughter Johnita Due said. She had moved to Smyrna, an Atlanta suburb, to be near her family after living in Miami.

At 13, Patricia Stephens challenged Jim Crow orthodoxy by trying to use the “whites only” window at a Dairy Queen. As a college student, she led demonstrations to integrate lunch counters, theaters and swimming pools and was repeatedly arrested.

As a young mother, she pushed two children in a stroller while campaigning for the rights of poor people. As a veteran of integration and voting rights battles, she went on to fight for economic rights, once obstructing a garbage truck in support of striking workers. As an elder stateswoman of the movement, she wrote a memoir to honor “unsung foot soldiers.”

She fought beside John D. Due Jr., a civil rights lawyer, whom she married in 1963. For their honeymoon, they rode the Freedom Train to Washington to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Mrs. Due paid a price for this devotion. She wore large, dark glasses day and night because her eyes were damaged when a hissing tear gas canister hit her in the face. She took a decade to graduate from Florida A&M University because of suspensions for her activism.

Her F.B.I. file ran more than 400 pages. Her stepfather urged her to give up civil rights, to protect her and his own job. She was kicked and threatened with dogs, including a German shepherd whose police handlers gave it a racial slur for a name.

Mrs. Due’s greatest prominence came after she and 10 other students were arrested for sitting at the “whites only” lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store in Tallahassee, Fla., on Feb. 20, 1960. It was 19 days after four black students in Greensboro, N.C., had made civil rights history by doing the same thing.

Mrs. Due and seven others refused to pay $300 fines for violating laws they abhorred. Five served the full 49-day sentence.

As leader of the sit-in, Mrs. Due became a national figure. Jackie Robinson sent her a diary for her jail-time thoughts. 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.”

It was not easy behind bars. She and her sister, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, her compatriot in many battles, had to share a narrow bed. They suspected that a mentally disturbed woman was placed in the cell to unnerve them. Food was awful; nights were cold.

Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, questioned whether it was all worth it, given the deplorable state of Southern jails. But the drama of righteous incarceration seized the nation’s attention, a freed Mrs. Due went on a national fund-raising tour and the “jail-in” became a movement standard.

Patricia Gloria Stephens was born on Dec. 9, 1939, in Quincy, Fla., and was raised in Belle Glade, Fla. As high school students, she and Priscilla, who was 15 months older, started a petition to have the principal removed, The Miami Herald reported in 1990. Patricia said the two were “always testing things.”

In 1959, she formed a local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. It was the beginning of life as “a professional volunteer,” in her daughter’s words. She worked with youths, helped out in political campaigns and spoke on human rights issues. In the last year of her life, state, county and local governments in Florida honored her.

In addition to her husband of 49 years, her sister and her daughter, Mrs. Due is survived by two other daughters, Tananarive Due and Lydia Due Greisz; a brother, Walter Stephens; and five grandchildren.

In 2003, Mrs. Due and her daughter Tananarive, a novelist, wrote “Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.” The book discusses thorny issues like 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.

“Stories live forever,” Mrs. Due liked to say. “Storytellers don’t.”

All The King’s Men

Leave a Reply