Over 60 years ago, Florida A&M University alumnus and attorney John Due, Jr. saw a photo in Jet magazine of Patricia Stephens being arrested in Florida and dragged to jail by the police as she fought for civil rights.
He marks it as the defining moment that would ultimately lead him to become one of the 57 original graduates of FAMU’s College of Law.
“When the civil rights movement became a movement, and Patricia Stephens was arrested in 1960, that’s when I decided I needed to leave Indiana and enroll in Florida A&M University,” Due, 87, told the Tallahassee Democrat.
Due, a Terre Haute, Indiana native, who now splits his time living in Quincy, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia, attended FAMU to help bring about change.
He graduated from the College of Law in 1963. That same year, he married Patricia Stephens, a FAMU student at the time who made her tremendous mark on the civil rights movement as an activist leading non-violent civil rights demonstrations throughout the South.
Nearly 60 years later, FAMU is recognizing Due and the other 56 distinctive law school alumni by unveiling a plaque at the Meek-Eaton Black Archives on its campus.
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For Due, hearing about FAMU’s College of Law started with a professor of law at Indiana University who told him about the Florida institution and encouraged him to attend its relatively new college at the time.
“When I arrived, (then) Dean Thomas Miller Jenkins was happy to see me because he helped recruit me to transfer from Indiana University,” Due said. “I had a great opportunity at Florida A&M. Although I was just a law student, I remember getting faculty housing on campus and everything.”
Due’s journey as an attorney and longtime human rights activist at FAMU started by assisting attorneys in their research to help arrested students and by participating in Freedom Rides, which were interracial bus rides across state lines to desegregate buses.
After graduating, Due worked as an attorney in Mississippi to monitor violence against civil rights workers and as an attorney for the Congress of Racial Equality to move civil rights cases to the federal court.
He calls himself a “freedom lawyer.”
“We had to change the law so that it provided freedom for everybody and to help everybody — not just Black people, but poor people and anybody who’s oppressed,” Due said.
The history behind FAMU’s College of Law
What was then known as Florida A&M College founded a division of law at the north end of the Coleman Library building on its Tallahassee campus in 1949 after the state was required to provide a separate but equal facility for Black students seeking legal education, according to current FAMU College of Law Dean Deidre Keller.
The college admitted its first class of law students in 1951.
But after states were eventually required to integrate their colleges and universities, the Florida Board of Control withdrew its permission for FAMU’s College of Law to admit students in 1966, which is the same year that Florida State University’s College of Law admitted its first students.
Former Supreme Court Justice B.K. Roberts, also known as the segregationist that used his position to prevent Black student Virgil Hawkins from attending the University of Florida’s Law School, helped establish FSU’s College of Law.
The turn of events marked one of the bitter racial divides between FSU and FAMU, and the last class of FAMU’s original law students graduated in 1968.
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The FAMU College of Law reopened over 30 years later after the Florida Legislature unanimously passed legislation to reestablish it, and the university admitted its first class in 2002. Although the college’s permanent home opened in Orlando in 2006, this year marks its 20th anniversary of being re-established, after victoriously surviving a bitter 30-year battle.
“It’s an honor to serve a college with a legacy of serving underserved students,” said Keller, the College of Law’s fourth permanent dean since its reopening. “The college’s mission and mandate is to have an impact on diversifying the profession, and that is definitely a mission and mandate that inspired me.”
‘A sense of responsiblity’
All of Due’s accomplishments as an attorney and activist led to his induction into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2018, following his wife’s induction in 2017.
More: John Due Jr. honored with Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame induction
He was also the director of Office of Black Affairs in Miami, Florida, with his focus including welfare rights, quality education and immigration. His activism work continued in Quincy and Tallahassee and included his fight to eliminate mass prison incarceration.
With his long list of achievements, Due expressed how FAMU’s College of Law helped shape him into who he is today and supported his “mission in trying to change the law to make it better for everybody in America dealing with civil rights.”
Besides Due, other original graduates of the law school still living are Bernice Dorn Gaines, the first Black woman to practice law in Florida; former Superior Court Judge Perker Meeks of San Francisco County in California and former Florida State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, according to Mildred Graham, executive director of community relations at the FAMU College of Law
“I feel honored, but also, at the same time, a sense of responsibility,” Due said. “It wasn’t just me, but others who also chose to make the sacrifice to do what they can to be the best they can be.”
Other FAMU related news:
Law school celebrating its history
Friday’s plaque tribute at the Meek-Eaton Black Archives is just one of the 20 events that the college’s planning committee has been putting on throughout the year to celebrate the milestone.
The remaining events include a 20th anniversary gala in October and a State of FAMU Law address by Keller in November.
“The FAMU College of Law’s legacy is engraved in the annals of our state and our country through the accomplishments of the initial 57 graduates of the program,” FAMU President Larry Robinson said in a release. “This plaque will memorialize our original graduates and inspire current students to similar acts of selfless courage.”
Contact Tarah Jean at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @tarahjean_.
A roll call of pioneering graduates
Here is a list of the 57 original graduates of FAMU’s College of Law:
Class of 1954
Class of 1955
- Darrel Alfonso McGhee
- Benjamin D. James Jr.
- Kellon Langston Jones
- Theries C. Lindsey
Class of 1956
Class of 1958
- Timothy Castell
- Bernice Dorn Gaines
- Odell Theo Johns
- James Wesley Matthews
- Samuel Penn Nesbitt
- Herman Boslevian Walden
Class of 1959
- Frederick Christopher Coward
- Cornelius Wadsworth Grant
- Ernest Alexander Hunter
- Vernon Mack Lee
- Frank Howard White
- August Fahnwula Caine
Class of 1960
- Joseph Austin Gresham
- Horace Donald Goode Jr.
- George Ashberry Grogan Jr.
- Jerry Dee Hill
- William Cornelius Lewis
Class of 1961
Class of 1962
- Henry Austin Collins Jr.
- Henry Thompson
Class of 1963
- John D. Due Jr.
- Alcee L. Hastings
- Ralph Eugene Maultsby
- Edward Rodgers
- Isiah J. Williams III
- Hemphill P. Pride II
Class of 1964
- Remus Charles Edison Allen
- Charles Henry Jackson
- Benjamin F. Lampkin Jr.
- Bertram W. N. Perry
- Allen Turner Clark III
Class of 1965
- Thomas DeLano Broadwater
- Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry
- Ed Duffee Jr.
- Jesse James McCrary Jr.
- Samuel James Moncur
- William Waterman
Class of 1966
- Elbert Leroy Hatchett
- Henry Edward Jones Jr.
- Irving Lester Mills Jr.
Class of 1967
- Richard Burdine
- Harry S. Juster
- Daniel D. Mangiamele
- Hiram Seymour
- William Lewin II
Class of 1968
- Ralph L. Flowers
- Arthenia Lee Joyner
- Howard Gore Knight
- Perker Lee Meeks
- Glenn Demetrius Pritchett
- C. Bette Wimbish
Source: Book by Larry O. Rivers, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University College of Law (1949-2000). Graduation dates are subject to change.
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