When I was a student at Northwestern University in the mid-1980s, I took part in a major anti-apartheid demonstration. I was so disappointed in myself for leaving the protest before the police cleared the administration building that I called my mother to apologize for not being more like her.
My mother, Patricia Stephens Due, was among five Florida A&M University students (including my aunt, Priscilla Kruize) who spent 49 days in jail rather than pay their fine after a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter — making them the first “Jail-In” students in the student sit-in movement of the 1960s. She had been arrested a dozen times, even lying in the road to block a sanitation truck during a sanitation workers’ strike. My whole life she wore dark glasses because of her sensitivity to light after a Tallahassee, Fla., police officer threw a teargas canister into her face in 1960. My mother was a warrior who had fascinated me from the time I learned who she was. I’d taken pride in pointing out her name to my friends in my college history books.
What would she think of me?
“Oh, Ta-na-na-rive-a…” my mother said in the deep voice strangers often mistook for Maya Angelou’s, using the extra syllable she affectionately adorned my name with. “Darling, I’m glad you didn’t get arrested. I went to jail so you wouldn’t have to.
I moved to Atlanta in 2011 after my mother grew ill, and we lost her to cancer a year ago. Her death is a double loss: the public figure who rallied activists, spoke to countless schoolchildren and defied Jim Crow to help create a new world — and “Mom,” my best friend, the woman whose model of integrity and dedication to her family shines so brightly in my heart.
Years ago, my mother met with a Miami textbook committee to ask why Florida’s civil rights movement was not mentioned in sociology textbooks, and she was told that nothing of note had happened in Florida. That helped motivate my mother to finally write the book about what she called the “unsung foot-soldiers” of the civil rights movement: the students, teachers, preachers, housekeepers, homemakers and businesspeople, White and Black, who sacrificed their jobs, peace of mind, health, and sometimes their lives in the cause of the “Struggle.” We published Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, so we could tell the stories of activists whose names are never evoked, who never saw their faces on a stamp.
Many, like my mother, suffered lifelong physical and psychological scars. I only have to gaze upon my mother’s photos in her ever-present dark glasses to remember her sacrifices.
My father, civil rights attorney John Due, is continuing to tell the story of the civil rights struggle and his own contribution. I will be with him when he keynotes a conference on Mississippi’s voting rights history alongside icons like Bob Moses at a program planned by high school students in McComb, Mississippi Feb. 21-22. See http://mccomblegacies.org/blog/2012/12/1068/
And I do take great solace in knowing that the story of the “unsung foot-soldiers” is still being told. My mother never sought glory. Most of all, she wanted students to know that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. – Tananrive Due is the 2012-2013 William and Camille Cosby Endowed Professor in the Humanities at Spelman.