Activists recall local civil rights activism

During her days as a student civil rights activist on FAMU’s campus, Patricia Stephens of Miami was not a stranger to the inside of the Tallahassee jail.

Yet, the numerous arrests and jail sentences only strengthened her dedication.

“When I get out,” she once boldly declared while serving time for staging a sit-in a local Woolworth’s, “I plan to carry on this struggle. I feel that I shall be ready to go to jail again, if necessary.”

Events such as the return of black soldiers, the integration of major league baseball, the desegregation of the military, and the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, set the stage for dramatic modifications in the social structure of Tallahassee.

Successful direct-action protests, such as the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., inspired many FAMU students to join the crusade for social justice.

Paraphrasing King while serving her first sixty-day sentence, Stephens said:

“We’ve got to fill the jails in order to win our equal rights.”

First introduced to direct-action campaign tactics in a 1959 Congress of Racial Equality workshop in Miami, Patricia and her sister Priscilla took the lead in organizing a CORE chapter in Tallahassee and uniting students at FAMU, FSU, and local high schools to fight segregation.

Like North Carolina A&T College students in Greensboro who staged the nation’s first lunch-counter sit-in on Feb. 1, 1960, CORE launched a broad campaign to desegregate local chain stores and other downtown business.

Word of FAMU student activism spread quickly across the nation.

1963 FAMU College of Law graduate John Dorsey Due Jr. of Terre Haute, Ind. recalled in a 2000 interview reading about his future wife, Stephens, and her civil rights campaigns as an undergraduate student at Indiana University:

“I had read about her in Jet Magazine before I came to the Florida A&M University College of Law,” Due said.

Then an aspiring civil rights attorney, Due recounts the strong influence FAMU student activism had in his decision to become a Rattler.

“My general intention in attending the Florida A&M College of Law, for me, was not to attend a law school operated by a historically black college, but for the specific purpose to be prepared and be part of the civil rights movement of the southern black community in 1960,” Due said.

The future Mr. and Mrs. Due shared many memories from the days fighting for civil rights as FAMU student.

Those memories span from participating in picket lines and freedom rides to being interviewed by United States Army Intelligence alleged association with communists. Mr. Due remembered it as the greatest experience of his life.

“Being at FAMU was being in a nurturing care-taking family interested in my success in being prepared for my life mission. The advantage of being at FAMU led to the initiation and development of friendships with leaders and supporters of the civil rights community in Tallahassee which then led to similar relationships with leaders in other Florida cities, and later, in the nation, which led to relationships that helped fulfill my mission in life.”