In Memory of Patricia Stephens Due, 1939-2012

by Paul Ortiz

February 28, 2012

This eulogy was delivered on February 19 at the memorial service of Dr. Patricia Stephens Due, a veteran of the struggle for civil rights in Florida. Her obituary can be found in the New York Times here.

Dear Friends in the Struggle,

On behalf of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and the University of Florida it is a deep honor to be able to join you today in memory of Florida’s unconquerable freedom fighter, Dr. Patricia Stephens Due. Patricia and her beloved husband John honored us with their presence last February in a lively, educational, and inspirational evening that was attended by hundreds of students and members of our community. “An Evening with the Dues” was also shown across the country via live video stream. It was a night that the people of Gainesville will never forget. Individuals flew in to join us from as far away as California and Texas.

A dozen members of 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East union drove up from Miami to hear Patricia and John talk about the intersections between labor, civil rights and human rights organizing. Very few people knew that Patricia had worked with the union’s members for many years on the crafts of recruitment and organizing. It should be no surprise to any of us that 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers is one of the fastest-growing labor unions in the country!

Patricia talked history that evening. However, I think she was more concerned about the present and the future. She urged students, union members, and faculty alike to quote: “Organize, organize, organize.” Patricia and John talked about economic and educational inequality, and asked us work harder than ever to build a world based on justice for everyone. Afterwards, many of our students commented on the deep love and respect that John and Pat shared for each other in front of a public audience.

Shortly after receiving the news of Patricia’s passing, I called University of Florida President J. Bernard Machen. Dr. Machen asked me to share with you his deep sympathy and solidarity with the Due family and he also asked me to share with you his sentiments on the historical significance of Patricia’s life. President Machen observes that, quote “Patricia Stephens Due was one of Florida’s earliest, most courageous and most determined civil rights pioneers, and we are saddened by her passing. She herself was punished for her civil rights work while in college, but as educators today, we hope to carry on her legacy by nurturing in our students her passion for equality and fairness. She will always remain an inspiration for us, for our students and for everyone who seeks to end racism and promote social justice in Florida and beyond.”

Patricia Stephens Due, center, in a protest at a segregated theater in 1963 in Tallahassee, FL. Photo: Frank Noel

African American communities in Florida have nurtured and produced America’s greatest activists, intellectuals, and organizers. People such as A. Phillip Randolph, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCleod Bethune, Harry T. Moore, Howard Thurman, James Weldon Johnson, and the Rev. C.K. Steele. Other unsung heroes such as Mary Ola Gaines, Malachi Andrews, Laura Dixie and working class African Americans who were the backbone of the history-changing Tallahassee Bus Boycott of 1956. We now add Patricia Stephens Due’s name to this immortal pantheon of heroes in the struggle for freedom. No US history textbook or organizer’s manual can be considered complete without her name.

What Patricia and her comrades in the movement did to make this state a better place for all of its residents cannot be overestimated. Before the movement, Florida was an economic and social backwater. Before the movement, Florida was one of the poorest states in the union. Before the movement, Florida had placed a gigantic “Stop Sign” at its borders, and had arrested its own mental and social development.

What Patricia Stephens Due and her brothers and sisters in CORE did was to make Florida a place where outsiders and outcastes were made to feel welcome. The civil rights movement opened up our hearts and it also opened up our state to the realization that, to quote Aime Cesaire, “There is room for all at the rendezvous of victory.” Sacrificing so much of herself, Patricia created the brilliant “jail-in” tactic that inspired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Belafonte and so many others.

Florida is a bustling, multicultural state because the civil rights movement taught us how to live and how to treat each other with dignity and respect irregardless of our backgrounds and beliefs. The movement has been the most important and successful economic development plan in the history of Florida.

If Patricia Stephens Due was with us today however, she would ask us this question: Are the movement’s blessings are being shared equitably by all? If not, why not? And, how can we make it right? This is why Patricia never stopped reminding us that there is so much more work to be done. Patricia and John have always emphasized the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final text: “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” If she was speaking today she would ask us all the same question: “Where do we go from here?” It is up to us all here today to carry on her commitments and her passion to fight inequality wherever we find it. “Organize, organize, organize.”

I pledge to you on behalf of the University of Florida that we will continue to teach and to spread Patricia’s legacy for decades to come. Thank you Patricia Stephens Due for sharing your life with us. You will live in our hearts always.

Paul Ortiz is Director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Associate Professor of History, and Affiliated Faculty in Latin American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Florida. He is the author of numerous books and articles and his latest publication, a talk on the legacy of C.L.R. James, can be found here.