Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Patricia Stephens Due (1939-2012), Civil Rights Pioneer in Florida

Patricia Stephens Due (1939-2012), Civil Rights Pioneer in Florida

Resisted racism, sexism and unjust prosecution

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

One of the leading pioneers of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Patricia Stephens Due, passed away on February 7 in Smyrna, Ga., she was 72-years-old. She 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, Florida and at the age of 13 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 that burst forth during the period after the Montgomery and Tallahassee bus boycotts of 1955-56.

Later at the age of 15 she was shocked and outraged when a white postman made a lewd comment to her. With the assistance of her mother she filed a formal complaint against the man.

After a year, with additional complaints being made against the postman by white women, an investigator came and questioned her in an effort to intimidate young Patricia. Later she would learn that the postman was fired.

At the age of 19 she would be a co-founder of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1959. This was a period of burgeoning civil rights activity and the following year, 1960, saw a nationwide protest movement largely led by students aimed at breaking down legalized segregation in all its forms in the United States.

She became a field secretary for CORE in northern Florida where Stephens-Due supervised voter registration drives among African Americans. When the sit-in movement began in the South on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Stephens-Due would help to organize similar efforts in Florida.

In Tallahassee on February 20, 1960, Due and 10 other students were arrested for protesting segregation at a Woolworth’s Department store. She and 7 other students refused to pay fines of $300 dollars for violating the-then Jim Crow laws of the South.

They were sentenced to 49 days in jail and Mrs. Due 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 would catapult Mrs. Due into national prominence. She went on a nationwide speaking tour that would draw the support of figures such as James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte.

During this same period Due would suffer an eye injury that plagued her for the rest of her life. In Tallahassee cops fired tear gas into a church during a movement meeting. The canister hit her right between her eyes and she was forced to wear dark glasses as a result of her 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 August 28 of that same year.

In her memoirs written with her daughter, Tananarive Due, entitled “Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights,” she stated that “I didn’t know it then, but refusing to back down would be a trademark in my life.”

Tananarive wrote in this same book that “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 by Patricia Stephens Due on February 16, 2011 at the University of Florida, she pointed out that “I know we’ve been through a lot, but we can’t let up, because the struggle continues.” (CNN Blog written by Alicia Stewart, February 7)

Legacy of Racial Violence and Civil Rights Struggle in Florida

The struggle against racism and for African American liberation has a long history during the 20th century in the state of Florida. This history is exemplified by the work of Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore, who were two stalwarts in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as the Progressive Voter’s League of Florida.

Harry Tyson Moore was born on November 18, 1905 in Houston, Florida, which was a small farming community in Suwannee County on the Panhandle of the state. 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 school and at baseball. He would later graduate from the Historically Black College of Bethune-Cookman in 1936. He met his wife Harriette Vyda Simms and they married while Moore was a school principal at 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 would establish the Progressive Voters’ League where over the next six years they would spearhead the registration of 116,000 African Americans, exceeding the numbers and proportion of all other states in the South. In 1946, as a result of their activism, the Florida public school system would fire the 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.

Nonetheless, while the two men were being transported from prison to the local jail in Groveland, Florida, they were shot to death by the Sheriff Willis V. McCall who said the men tried to reach for his gun.

Harry T. Moore sought to have the Sheriff indicted for murder, but to no avail. Due to the Moores’ activism and militancy, they were expelled from the NAACP by the-then leader Walter White.

Later on Christmas night in 1951, racist planted a bomb under the home of Harry and Harriette Moore. They both died from the blasts.

During that same year there were 11 other bombings of African American family homes. The price of activism in Florida during this period was quite severe.

Civil Rights and African American Liberation in the 21st Century

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

With the stealing of the 2000 elections 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 and the social conditions of African Americans has 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, and equality under the legal system.

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

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