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Civil rights leader Patricia Stephens Due dies at 72

By the CNN Wire Staff
February 8, 2012 -- Updated 0240 GMT (1040 HKT)
 Dr. Patricia Stephens Due died Tuesday at age 72.
Dr. Patricia Stephens Due died Tuesday at age 72.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Due played a leading role in student sit-ins more than half a century ago
  • She and other activists were arrested at a Woolworth lunch counter
  • The activists spent 49 days in jail rather than pay fines

(CNN) -- Civil rights leader Dr. Patricia Stephens Due died Tuesday at age 72, nearly 52 years after she played a leading role in student sit-ins in Tallahassee, Florida, her family said.

Due's death followed "a determined and courageous fight against cancer," her family said.

In 1960, as a 20-year-old college student and founding member of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, Due, her sister, Priscilla, and three other Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University students were arrested for sitting at a Woolworth lunch counter.

Their decision to spend 49 days in jail rather than pay fines marked one of the first "jail-ins" during the civil rights movement, according to Johnita Due, one of the civil rights leader's three daughters and a lawyer for CNN.

During her time in jail, Due received a telegram of encouragement from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity," it said. " I assure you that your valiant witness is one of the glowing epics of our time and you are bringing all of America (to) the threshold of the world's bright tomorrows."

Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's racial barrier, sent Due a diary so that she could record her experiences while in jail, the family said.

Due's involvement with civil rights, which included leading rallies and marches throughout Tallahassee and elsewhere, came with a price, her family said. She was arrested for protesting in Florida and New York and the FBI had built up a 400-page file on her because of her activities, according to the family.

During one incident in 1960, Due was injured by a tear gas bomb used by police. The incident left her sensitive to light, requiring that she wear dark glasses throughout her life.

Her activism also jeopardized her college education at FAMU. Due's parents feared for her safety and wanted her to focus on her college education, according to Johnita Due.

Due tried to balance school and her protests against segregation, but according to the family, FAMU administrators were ultimately pressured by Florida officials to suspend Due.

Due was allowed to re-enroll and earned her degree in 1965. "I was determined that nothing was going to stop me from getting my degree," Due later said.

In 2006, FAMU gave Due an honorary doctorate in human letters and formally acknowledged the five decades she spent as a social activist. In response, Due said then, "At our ages when entering college, we were still children and FAMU was our surrogate parent, and time after time, we were punished for our 'behavior,' and now, they are embracing us and saying, 'well done, well done.'"

Due co-authored a book in 2003 with her daughter Tananarive Due called "Freedom In The Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights." Due wanted the stories of the Florida civil rights movement and its key players to be remembered for their contributions to the fight against social injustice. According to the family, Due remarked, "Stories live forever. Story tellers don't."

The book was honored by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.

In 2006, The History Channel's award-winning series "Voices of Civil Rights" profiled Due.

She was recently honored by Tallahassee Mayor John R. Marks, who issued a proclamation declaring May 11, 2011, "Patricia Stephens Due Day."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott praised Due in a private letter last year recognizing her "impact as a civil rights pioneer" and commending her for her "lifetime of advocacy and commitment to achieving racial justice in America."

Scott called Due's actions "a significant moment in our country's history and ... an incredible source of inspiration still today."

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