Two Generations Revisit the Civil Rights Movement in a Mother-and-Daughter Memoir

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In 1960, signs above the Woolworth's lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida, advertised a roast turkey dinner for 65 cents and sundaes for a quarter. But on February 13, when 10 black Florida A&M University students and two high school students tried ordering slices of cake, a waitress refused to serve them. Undaunted, they remained at the counter, quietly reading from their books, and were soon surrounded by angry hecklers. This protest preceded the first arrests of students in the Civil Rights movement, and the Tallahassee protest remained a largely forgotten event, until now.

Determined not to let this history die, Patricia Stephens Due, one of the college students at the lunch counter, and her daughter, writer Tananarive Due -- author of The Living Blood, My Soul to Keep, The Between and Black Rose, and the forthcoming The Good House -- co-wrote Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (One World/Ballantine Books).

A week after that February 13 protest, Stephens Due returned with 10 other protesters -- including her sister Priscilla -- and again attempted to be served at the Woolworth's lunch counter. This time, the protesters were arrested, and Stephens Due, her sister, and six others ultimately served time in jail. She was incarcerated for 49 days, and, during that time, received national support, including a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Freedom in the Family shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things," said Stephens Due. "Ordinary people who put their lives, livelihoods, and families at risk. Without those sacrifices, the Movement could not have happened."

That Tallahassee protest was the nation's first "jail-in," where protesters chose jail over paying a fine. Stephens Due was also expelled from school for her involvement in sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives. At a 1960 Freedom March, a police officer threw a tear gas canister directly at her. Her eyes were permanently damaged, leaving her sensitive toward light and unable to see without sunglasses. Later, Stephens Due married fellow activist and civil rights attorney, John D. Due, Jr., whose legal strategies were critical in keeping the Civil Rights movement on course.

Stephens Due told BTW, "If you don't write the history, you'll lose it. The first jail-in occurred in Tallahassee. This is important American history. Readers will now know why people in Florida got disgusted with the presidential election in 2000. Especially when, in 1963 and 1964, we promised black people in Florida during voter registration drives that their votes would be counted."

A few years ago, while sitting on a state textbook committee, she asked why the social studies books under consideration didn't mention Tallahassee's civil rights struggle. School officials told her that nothing important happened in Florida. "I was there," she writes in Freedom in the Family, "A living witness didn't matter to them. Without written documentation, I was told, the 49 days my sister and I spent in jail, the tear gas that burned my eyes, and the people I knew could not be included. As if we have never existed. There's a saying I believe in, history belongs to those who write it."

And write it she and her daughter did. But the product was fraught with challenges, from locating people to interview, to finding data, to playing beat the clock. Many participants in the Civil Rights movement were dying or forgetting. In 1996, Tananarive Due took time off from her job to travel with her mother, videotaping and interviewing Civil Rights activists across the country. "It was very difficult. You're asking them to go back to the day their child was murdered, or the day they were beaten, or the time they went to jail," explained Due.

In alternating chapters, Stephens Due gives an account from the front lines, while her daughter, born in 1966, shares her experiences as part of the integration generation. Due revisits the racial slurs in her predominately white neighborhoods and describes her bouts of "Oreoitis" in relationships with other blacks during her years at Northwestern University. At the same time, her contributions to the book also honor the sacrifices her parents and other activists made for future generations.

"One misconception about the civil rights movement was that 100 percent of blacks were involved," said Stephens Due. "A good percentage thought we weren't doing the right thing. Another misconception is people thinking they have to wait for another leader. All individuals should make a point to be involved." For Stephens Due, "The main place we can all be involved is at home. It's primary and crucial that we love our children and give them high self-esteem. If a child feels good about his or herself, they know they can handle whatever comes their way."

For Tananarive -- a Rotary Scholar and former feature writer and columnist for the Miami Herald -- and her sisters, Johnita and Lydia (both lawyers), this is a lesson learned firsthand. "We grew up with grand role models," said Due. "I understood how individuals can make an impact on the world. In developing my own dreams and goals, my parents made me feel I could do almost anything. I love that we grew up with a strong sense of black history. There was a strong history component in everything we did."

Because her parents shared their lives with her, Due developed a social consciousness at a young age. "It's difficult to see the problems today," said Due. "People don't realize the degree at which racism still exist. There are pockets where people feel isolated from racism from previous generations, which gives them less incentive to pull somebody else up. We owe a debt. The underground railroad needs to be alive and well." -- Gayle Herbert Robinson