Civil rights pioneer remembers sister, gives advice to today’s young people
March 12, 2012
By Mhisha Compere
Your Capital Bureau
There is a time to fight, and there is a time to rest, even for those who led the nation’s first “jail-in.”
With the recent death of civil rights leader and Florida A&M University alumna Patricia Stephens Due, little has been said about her partner in the fight for equality, her older sister, Priscilla Stephens Kruize.
Memories of the fight for civil rights are clear in her mind.
She remembers well how she and her sister Patricia attended a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) meeting during the summer of 1959.
From then on, they were bent on making changes and making a difference. Kruize and her sister spread the word to the African-American community in Tallahassee that they were going to change their society from a rear-view society to a front-view society.
The young women recruited members for CORE at their school, Florida A&M University, and at the neighboring white institution, Florida State University.
The sisters led the nation’s very first jail-in, where they and nine other students chose to be arrested rather than get up and move from a whites-only lunch counter in Woolworth’s in Tallahassee.
The Stephens sisters and three other students were tried, sentenced and served 49 days in jail. That did not slow them down, though. The young women persevered, and their fight for equality went on. It entailed many more arrests, several stays in jail, violence, and difficulty in finding work.
Mrs. Kruize was in attendance at the unveiling of the Her-Story exhibit opening in the Black Archives and Museum recently, and spoke about her experiences as a civil rights trailblazer. She also talked about what’s going on today.
“We were so full of love, we didn’t know hate. We didn’t see it as courageous. You do the right thing and don’t be fearful of it,” she said, explaining her bravery back in the ‘60’s.
Kruize said she can’t even believe she did things like write a sarcastic letter to then-president of FAMU, George Gore, or wag her finger in the face of a white officer ready to arrest her for protesting.
“Me and my sister were arrested walking down the street.”
“They would say, ‘You’re not doing anything, but we know you’re up to something.’ “
“In jail, I became paralyzed because it was cold. I had ulcers from holding everything in.”
Kruize explains that as children, she and her sister would go into white-only lines and try on clothes in whites-only stores all the time. “We grew up very bourgeois. We were treated fairly in our town because they knew us. The people knew us, but when we brought our friends, they wouldn’t serve us. We were in a box.”
The sisters’ father, a teacher, taught them civics, and their mother, a Democratic committeewoman, taught them about registration laws. “We were going to make a difference. We were very close, my sister and I.”
She reflects on a time when her sister called her to assist in leading a swim-in, an effort to integrate a local pool in Tallahassee.
She says she was kicked in the stomach by a police officer and a white woman with sympathetic eyes and a sympathetic smile watched the whole thing without saying a word. She saw the same woman in court, and again the woman said nothing. She was also abused in jail, where they forced women to have vaginal exams, and she refused.
Kruize says that when she began to be abused by law enforcement officials and no one spoke up, she decided to leave the country.
Ultimately, she made a home for her family in Ghana, West Africa.
“That’s the reason I left America. I lost hope.”
Kruize had some words for a new generation of young people.
“You students have to give back. There are children who do not know who Joe Louis is; there are children that do not know who Martin Luther King is. Our teachers and adults spit on our children. They have this thought that our black children are unteachable. Our people now want to be like the whites. They are embarrassed.”
“Make up your mind on how you want to make a difference. If you give love and respect to everybody, you will survive.”
Sadly, Kruize does not feel African-Americans have gained much in the way of progress, and she no longer wants to fight.
“It (racism) is still there. It’s more dangerous today because it’s not so conspicuous. We need to understand what’s happening to us and why. But I’ve given my energy. My own people will kill me trying to help them.”
“People don’t care. I am 73 years old. I want to live my life. I’m exhausted. I want to dance, learn to swim, learn a different language.”
She is, however, proud that a black man, Barack Obama, has made it into the White House, and she is confident that he will be re-elected.
She said she did not think she would live to see a black man in office. Although she fought against whites for equality, she harbors no bad feelings, especially since a number of white men and women helped in their plight.
In fact, she says, “I married a white man. I love everybody, I’m a black nationalist I have friends all over the world, all colors. But I will not deny who I am. “
Kruize plans to move back to Africa within the next 18 months.
Of herself and her sister, she wants people to remember, “We were making changes.”
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