Patricia Stephens Due, Civil Rights pioneer

Patricia Stephens Due, center, at a demonstration in front of
segregated theater in Tallahassee, Fla., 1963.

One of the leading pioneers of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Patricia Stephens Due, passed away on Feb. 7 in Smyrna, Ga.; she was 72 years old. Due had been battling thyroid cancer since 2009 and took her last breath surrounded by family members, who sang freedom songs as she made her transition.

Patricia Stephens was born in Quincy, Fla., in 1939, and at the age of 13 she engaged in an act of civil disobedience by refusing to move away from a “whites-only” line at an ice cream parlor. This act of defiance took place long before the upsurge in mass activity burst forth after the Montgomery, Ala., and Tallahassee, Fla., bus boycotts of 1955 and 1956.

At the age of 15, Stephens was shocked and outraged when a white mail carrier made a lewd comment to her. With the assistance of her mother, she filed a formal complaint against the man.

After a year, when additional complaints had made against the mail carrier by white women, an investigator questioned young Stephens in an effort to intimidate her. Later she learned that he had been fired.

In 1959, at the age of 19, Stephens became a co-founder of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality during a period of burgeoning Civil Rights activity. The following year saw a nationwide protest movement largely led by students, aimed at breaking down legalized segregation in all its forms in the United States.

Stephens became a field secretary for CORE in northern Florida, where she supervised voter registration drives among African Americans. When the sit-in movement began in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, Stephens helped organize similar efforts in Florida.

On Feb. 20, 1960, Stephens and 10 other students were arrested for protesting segregation at a Woolworth’s Department store in Tallahassee. She and seven other students refused to pay $300 fines for violating Jim Crow laws.

They were sentenced to 49 days in jail, and Stephens, along with five other students, served their full sentences. This act of resistance became known as the first “jail-in,” where activists refused to pay fines for laws they considered unjust and morally reprehensible.

These developments catapulted Stephens into national prominence. She went on a nationwide speaking tour that drew the support of such figures as author James Baldwin and performer Harry Belafonte.

During this same period Stephens would suffer an eye injury that plagued her the rest of her life. In Tallahassee, cops fired tear gas into a church during a movement meeting. A canister hit her right between the eyes, and from then on she was forced to wear dark glasses as a result of sensitivity to light.

In 1963 she married John D. Due Jr., a Civil Rights lawyer. For their honeymoon they traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the historic March on Washington held on Aug. 28 of that year.

In her memoir, co-authored with her daughter, Tananarive, “Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights,” Patricia Stephens Due wrote, “I didn’t know it then, but refusing to back down would be a trademark in my life.”

Tananarive Due wrote, “My parents were more than parents to me, they were living monuments. As far as we were concerned, they had helped change the world.”

In a speech delivered at the University of Florida on Feb. 16, 2011, Patricia Stephens Due urged, “I know we’ve been through a lot, but we can’t let up, because the struggle continues.” (CNN Blog, Feb. 7)

Legacy of racial violence & Civil Rights struggle in Florida

The 20th-century struggle against racism and for African-American liberation has a long history in the state of Florida. This history is exemplified by the work of Harry T. Moore and Harriette V. Moore, two stalwarts in the NAACP as well as the Progressive Voters League of Florida.

Harry Tyson Moore was born on Nov. 18, 1905, in Houston, Fla., a small farming community in Suwannee County on the state’s panhandle. He was the son of a Seaboard Air Line Railroad worker who also ran a small store.

Moore studied at Florida Memorial High School and excelled in his studies and baseball. He graduated from Bethune-Cookman, a historically Black college, in 1936. Moore married Harriette Vyda Simms while he was principal of the Titusville Colored School in Brevard County in 1926.

The Moores founded the Brevard County Chapter of the NAACP in 1934. They became tireless organizers, investigating lynchings, taking legal actions against segregation and supervising voter registration.

In 1944 they established the Progressive Voters League, where over the next six years they spearheaded the registration of 116,000 African Americans, exceeding the numbers and proportions of all other states in the South. In 1946, as a result of their activism, the Florida public school system fired both Moores.

During the post-World War II period, there was a drastic increase in racially motivated violence by white mobs and law-enforcement agents against African Americans. In 1949, four African-American men were sentenced to death for allegedly raping a white woman.

The Moores defended the men, leading to an appeal of their convictions. A new trial was won for two of the men, Sam Sheppard and Walter Irvin. While the two were being transported from prison to the local jail in Groveland, Fla., they were shot to death by Sheriff Willis V. McCall, who claimed the men tried to reach for his gun.

Harry Moore sought to have the sheriff indicted for murder but to no avail. In response to their activism and militancy, the Moores were expelled from the NAACP by leader Walter White.

On Dec. 25, 1951, racists planted a bomb under the Moore home, and they both died from the blast.

The price of activism in Florida during this period was quite severe. During the same year the homes of 11 other African-American families were bombed.

21st-century Civil Rights and African-American liberation

The struggle for fundamental rights for African Americans and other oppressed nations within the U.S. remains a major source of contention in the 21st century. The 2000 national presidential election in Florida represented this ongoing fight for universal suffrage and self-determination.

With the stealing of the 2000 election in Florida and the assumption of power by the Bush administration, a new wave of racism and repression swept the U.S. Today a myriad of repressive laws have been enacted; the social conditions of African Americans have worsened with high unemployment, growing poverty, and increasing rates of incarceration and police violence directed against the community.

Even under a Democratic administration led by an African-American president, African Americans are subjected to large-scale home foreclosures, higher infant mortality rates, racially motivated prosecutions as well as police terrorism.

These conditions require independent political action against both national oppression and economic exploitation. The capitalist system is at a dead end, with its inability to provide good jobs, homes, quality education, health care and equality under the legal system.

It is only with the realization of a socialist society that African Americans, the nationally oppressed and working people as whole can expect to see their living standards rise. Under socialism the wealth of society will be distributed equitably among those who work and those who need assistance

Patricia Stephens Due, Civil Rights pioneer.

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