Patricia S. Due, leader of nation's first jail-in, dies at 72

Patricia Stephens Due, with her husband John D. Due Jr., is pictured at the University of Florida last year.

By Alicia W. Stewart, CNN

(CNN) -- The stories we tell often leave room for only one hero.
In America, our civil rights hero is Martin Luther King.
But even he recognized the sacrifice of heroines like Patricia Stephens Due.
    "Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity. 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,"  King said in a telegram to Due and fellow students.
    Patricia Stephens Due stayed in jail for 49 days, refusing to pay bail after she was arrested for sitting at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida.
    “We are all so very happy to do this so that we can help our city, state and nation. We strongly believe that Martin Luther King was right when he said, ‘We’ve got to fill the jails to win our equal right’,” she wrote in a letter to the Congress of Racial Equality’s James Robinson.
    She, her sister, six other Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University students and one high school student were jailed after participating in the peaceful sit-ins, a defining symbol of America’s civil rights movement.
    Due, a 20-year-old student then, led the first jail-in, and received global attention from leaders like King.
    Today, Patricia Stephens Due died after a two-year battle with thyroid cancer, and more than 50 years of activism.
    A Civil Rights Pioneer
    She showed early signs of being a fighter.
    At age 15, she was  stunned after a white postman made a lewd comment toward her, and she filed a formal report with the help of her mother.
    This was in the 1950s. In Florida.
    A year later, prompted by other white women who had complained of the worker, an investigator came and asked questions, seeking to intimidate the young woman, she wrote in “Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights." Later, Due learned the worker had been fired.
    “I didn’t know it then,” she wrote. “But refusing to back down would be a trademark in my life.”
    Patricia S. Due, in a black dress, at a demonstration in Florida, in 1963.
    By the age of 19, she helped found a local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality with her sister, Priscilla. Years later, Due was a field secretary for the organization, supervising voter drives and registration in northern Florida.
    And the jail-in that brought her national attention? It prompted a speaking tour that took her around the country, drawing support from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte.
    “She seemed like a giant”
    The dark shades she wore, even indoors, provided a window to her past: she wore them to protect sensitive eyes, a result of being tear gassed in a 1960 march, her family said.
    Due was small in stature, but stood tall in courage, her daughter, Tananarive, remembers in “Freedom in the Family” a book she and Due co-authored. “She might be short physically, but she seemed like a giant.”
    Last year, Tallahassee’s mayor recognized her lifetime of achievement, and proclaimed May 11, 2011 Patricia Stephens Due Day.
    Due spoke publicly for the last time at the University of Florida on February 16, 2011.
    “I know we’ve been through a lot, but we can’t let up, because the struggle continues,” she said to a crowd of more than 200.
      She is survived by her husband, civil rights attorney John D. Due; three children, Tananarive Due, a professor and writer, Johnita Patricia Due, CNN’s chief diversity chair and assistant general counsel, and Lydia Due Greisz, a Dallas attorney; her sister, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, a brother Walter Stephens, and five grandchildren.
      “My parents were more than parents to me, they were living monuments,” Tananarive Due wrote in "Freedom in the Family". “As far as we were concerned, they had helped change the world.”