After the deeply entrenched walls of legalized racial segregation in America began to crumble in the early and mid-1950s, legions of courageous young college students joined the loosely knit campaign for justice in the later years of the decade and the early 1960s. Twenty-year-old Patricia Stephens was among them.
Stephens, a student in 1960 at Florida A & M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, organized (with her sister, Priscilla, and three other FAMU students) and staged the first student sit-ins in the city. After being arrested for sitting at the `public’ lunch counter at Woolworth’s five-and-dime store, Stephens spent 49 days in a Tallahassee jail rather than pay a fine for breaking the law barring Whites and Blacks from dining in the same business establishment.
The daring action drew widespread praise from civil rights champions of the day, including the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (he wrote her a letter of encouragement while she was in jail) and Daisy Bates, leader of the 1957 Little Rock public schools desegregation efforts. Stephens won support from baseball legend Jackie Robinson (he sent her a diary in which she could write notes of her jail experience), entertainer Harry Belafonte, publisher John Johnson and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Stephens also heard from officials at FAMU. Under pressure from its governing board to send students a strong message about the risks of engaging in protests of the state and city’s racial segregation laws, the school suspended her – several times, it seems, as she and her cohorts would not relent in their crusade for equality.
Stephens demonstrated in other Florida cities (St. Petersburg, Ocala and Miami). As founding member of the Tallahassee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), she was able to travel nationally to speak out about racial discrimination in the South.
Patricia Stephens Due, who devoted her life to crusading for civil rights, died earlier this month after a 2-year battle with cancer, university officials and family members say. She was 72. More than 200 members of the FAMU family joined Due’s husband and children on the FAMU campus on Sunday for a memorial in her honor.
“It was the work of Ms. Due that inspired generations of Rattlers to stand up and fight for their beliefs,” says FAMU President James H. Ammons, in a statement acknowledging her passing. He called her “one of the foot soldiers for social justice and the civil rights movement.”
Indeed, it was young college students like Stephens Due who took the baton in the last leg of the modern day civil rights movement, one that was marked by students of all races on college campuses across the nation joining mostly Black students at HBCU’s across the South to protest racial segregation by staging sit-ins city-by-city at restaurants and retail store lunch counters where local and state laws barred Blacks and Whites from dining together. They also staged school and merchant boycotts, pickets at theaters, organized the Freedom Riders bus rides aimed at ending racial segregation in interstate travel on commercial bus lines such as Greyhound and Trailways. They organized voter registration efforts and challenged voter registration laws across the South, especially in rural areas where Black voting was unheard.
“They got their inspiration from all that happened after `54 (1954),” says John Egerton, the Southern journalist and author who chronicled much of the South’s evolution from the era of racial segregation to the post-segregation era.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision declaring dual systems of public education, one for Black and one for Whites, illegal, came the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., city bus boycotts, the death of Emmett Till and, in 1957, the Little Rock, Arkansas school desegregation confrontation, notes Egerton, author of Speak Now Against the Day, a book about civil rights pioneers of the 1940s and 1950s.
“They (the students) had seen people come forward from all different ways, saying ‘we’re not going to do this anymore,’” says Egerton, describing how the national stage had been set for the next generation of civil rights advocates to emerge.
Indeed, recent years have seen political and educational leaders busy reflecting on those student crusaders, like Stephens Due, and seeking to make amends for how they were treated half a century ago.
Earlier this month, Albany State University in Georgia award bachelor’s degrees to 32 students expelled from the then Albany State College for conduct unbecoming a student. They had been arrested for “disorderly conduct,” a charge based their efforts to buy bus tickets at a whites-only window.
Elsewhere, South Carolina State University held a special “Keeping the Legacy Alive” program marking the anniversary of the 1968 student demonstration protesting segregation at a bowling alley in nearby Orangeburg. The protest ended with three students killed and nearly two dozen others wounded, all by gunfire from South Carolina Highway Patrol officers in what has been called the “Orangeburg Massacre.”
Tennessee State University honored its student “Freedom Riders” nearly two years ago with honorary doctorate degrees. They too had been expelled in the early 1960’s and successfully sued the university for re-admission.
Stephens Due married fellow activist and later civil rights lawyer John Due Jr. in 1963.
In 2006, FAMU (from which she graduated in 1965) awarded her an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters for her tireless work. At the time of the award she said it also was for her fellow foot soldiers, who were not able to continue their schooling and earn a degree.
As word spread of her illness with cancer, others paused to recognize their local legend and modern day civil rights pioneer.
Last year, the mayor of Tallahassee issued a proclamation declaring May 11, 2011, Patricia Stephens Due Day. Later that month, the Leon County Board of County Commissioners (the county in which FAMU is located) issued a proclamation honoring her. In June 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sent Stephens Due a personal letter saluting her for her “…lifetime of advocacy and commitment to achieving racial justice in America.”
Scott characterized Stephens Due’s actions as a “…significant moment in our country’s history and…an incredible source of inspiration still today.”