Sixty years ago, a group of Tallahassee college students decided they’d had enough. It was February 13th, 1960, and 11 students, led by Florida A&M University student Patricia Stephens, decided to go downtown for lunch—to the segregated lunch counter of the Woolworth’s department store. Less than four years prior the city’s bus system had been desegregated but Tallahassee was far from racial equality.
“Ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” Due wrote in her book, Freedom In The Family which she co-authored with her daughter Tannaverne. She was 21-years-old when she founded the Tallahassee Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality after attending a workshop a year prior, with her sister.
All 11 students were jailed for their sit-in. Three posted bail but the other eight, including Due remained in jail refusing to pay the fine for their arrests. They believed paying the fine would be an approval of the segregation system. That sparked the civil rights movement’s first “jail-in.” The students’ protest caught the attention of Dr. Mr. Luther King who wrote a letter to them while they were in jail.
“It is almost overwhelming when I think of what we had to go through to get the job done,” said Henry Steele, son of the late Reverend C.K. Steele who led the Tallahassee Bus Boycott of 1956. Steele was pushed off sidewalks and endured terrifying threats however, he said “I was never really afraid. No one forced me to do this.” Steele was 16-year-old when he was arrested for his involvement with the lunch counter sit-in.
Pictures of the arrests made national news. Patricia Stevens was featured in Jet Magazine and that’s where John Due Jr. first saw her. He left Indiana University and moved to Tallahassee to attend Florida A&M University’s law school. Due joined the local civil rights movement and married Stevens in 1963. She died in 2012.
“The struggle that Patricia was involved in was more than just civil rights, it’s about human rights” Due said about his wife’s legacy. He became a prominent civil rights lawyer.
Due and Steele recently took part in a press conference facilitated by the county focusing on the anniversary of the lunch counter sit-in and promoting an upcoming discussion hosted by the Village Square. The commemoration is part of the non-partisan forum’s upcoming “Created Equal” town hall.
“That’s the purpose of ‘Created Equal,’ to reflect on the conditions today, and in the spirit of the lunch counter sit-ins, ask, ‘Are we sitting together now?’” said Commissioner Bryan Desloge, during an event marking the anniversary of the sit-in and jail-in.
That’s a question Terrance McPherson thinks about too. He’s a member of Omega Lamplighters, a youth development group, and he recently stood behind the two civil rights activists during the commemoration. McPherson was holding a picket sign, a replica of the ones used during the counter sit-ins. “I have something to look up to,” he says.
Due, Steele and the Village Square will come together at The Moon on February 13 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.