Patricia Stephens Due has died after battling cancer, but cancer wasn’t the first serious and difficult battle in which she had been involved.
Due was one of several students who attended Florida A&M University in 1960, who decided that they were sick and tired of cowering under Jim Crow. A small group of 4 students, including Due, went to a Woolworth lunch counter and sat down.
That doesn’t seem like a big thing, except that in these United States, black people back then were not allowed to sit at lunch counters and get a meal or even a drink of water. Inspired perhaps by events in and following World War II, where African American soldiers protested because they were required to fight for America but were denied basic human rights in America, or perhaps by the stirring of African American souls that were tired of being relegated to back doors, balconies and separate restrooms and swimming pools, the students in Florida and elsewhere said, “enough.”
They were not necessarily encouraged by their parents, or, as in the case of Due, by their universities. After being arrested for sitting at the Woolworth lunch counter, Due and her fellow students were arrested and spent 49 days in jail. They were not supported or encouraged by Florida A&M; her university suspended her.
The lack of support did not dissuade Due and others in Florida and elsewhere. Due was so tenacious in her fight for civil rights for black people that the FBI built a file on her, some 400 pages long. She at one point was attacked by a tear gas bomb, an incident which left her sensitive to light for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, she pressed on.
The story of Due, and others, black and white, is mind-boggling. So many of the basic civil rights that African-Americans have now is because of these people, like Due, like Irene Morgan and Ruby Bridges…who refused to back down or back out. The story of the Freedom Riders, who rode on buses and willingly endured beatings, terrorism by the Klan, murders of some of their friends, fires deliberately set to the buses on which they rode …defies imagination.
Thinking of what these brave people did – so many of them students at the time, like Due was, makes me wonder if we really appreciate what they did. They were so brave. Jim Crow laws were strong as was the hatred that surrounded them, but the courage of the participants in the Civil Rights demonstrations was stronger. They pressed on even when they could not get the federal government to listen to them or support them. Only when the news reports of how certain people in the United States were denied basic human rights began to hit the air waves in Europe did President Kennedy, for example, order federal troops to Alabama to protect Freedom Riders there. The treatment of African-Americans made America look bad in the eyes of the world.
Patricia Stephens Due was one of many sister-warriors who fought in that horrendous time of American history. The women of the Civil Rights movement are often not mentioned, paled in comparison as the male leaders are lifted up, but it is clear that Due,one of the founding members of her local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, were no less important and no less powerful. They kept the vision of a better life for themselves and for their children, and for all children, ahead of themselves and above their egos. They just would not quit.
Patricia Stephens Due fought cancer for years and would not quit that fight, either; in fact, she fought for everything she wanted. In 1965, she was allowed to re-enoll in Florida A&M University to complete her education and was awarded an honorary degree by the university in 2006. There was never a doubt in her mind that she would finish her education and get her degree, any more than it was a doubt that she was going to fight for basic civil rights. She spent her life fighting …and cancer was but one of the enemies on her battlefield
She never got off that battlefield, and we, the children of sister-warriors like Due, are the beneficiaries of their work.
It is humbling to read and study about the people who really walked on the water called Jim Crow and overt racial discrimination. It takes a lot of courage to do that, as well as conviction; Jim Crow was a Goliath back in Due’s day, supported by armies made up of the local, state and federal governments. The warriors were as “unarmed” to face that Goliath as was David in the Biblical account.
It seems today that the Goliath is not as blatant as it was in Due’s day; the Goliath has not gone away, however. It presents itself in more socially acceptable ways, but is just as big and threatening as it was when Due sat down at a lunch counter in Florida. The thing is, many to most of us do not or will not see it, and so are probably much more threatened than we would be if we would recognize it.
Due, I know, always saw the Goliath, in spite of having to forever wear dark classes because of the tear gas bomb attack she endured in 1960.
The Goliath called racism is still here, sadly. Its light is subdued by clouds of deception which make way too many people think that the Goliath has gone away. Ironically, too many of us wear dark glasses because we do not want to see what is still with us.
A candid observation …