The Activist Who Spent the Rest of Her Life Living With Side Effects of Tear Gas

GEN: Your mother had a history in the civil rights movement that would be impossible to summarize. But let’s try. What do you think people who aren’t familiar with her work should know?

Tananarive Due: Well, first I want to say that my mother and I co-wrote a book together, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. And I think it’s important to mention that she never envisioned that book as a memoir.

All my life she just wanted to help the activists she had known in the sixties have an opportunity to tell their story. Why, when so many other people were afraid, did you march? Why were you willing to go to jail? For a housekeeper who didn’t even know the students who sat in at the lunch counter in 1960, why did you risk your job, and eventually lose your job to take part in that demonstration?

The most important thing she wanted people to understand, as she said over and over again, is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. While she had great admiration for Dr. King, and for Rosa Parks, and for the three or four names that most people know, she also knew what she called the foot soldiers, who were on the ground. They were students, they were young people, they were older people, they were Black, they were white, they were Jewish — people who sacrificed. People who later committed suicide because they were so traumatized by what happened in the movement. People who never made it home from the voter registration campaign they took part in, in Mississippi.

So this was a story of true domestic warfare that was inflicted against citizens. And some of those experiences have been buried, because too often people want to sanitize the movement of the 1960s without addressing either the true cost or where that movement fell short and there is still more work to do.

Tell me the story of the time your mother was tear-gassed.

This is kind of a big deal. My mother wore dark glasses, even indoors, the whole time I knew her — like 80% of the time she was wearing dark glasses. She suffered sensitivity to light because a police officer threw a tear gas canister in her face while she was taking part in a peaceful march in 1960 in Tallahassee, Florida.

The genesis of that was the blossoming student sit-in movement that was happening around the country. Greensboro had had the first one, and then my mother and her sister, my aunt Priscilla Stephens Kruize, knocked on doors at their dormitory at Florida A&M University and were able to collect enough students to have their own sit-in movement in Tallahassee. There were also students from Florida State University who participated. My mother and my aunt and three other students from Florida A&M University were arrested and would spend 49 days in jail because they refused to pay their bail.

So they did spend that time in jail, but during a time when she was free — I’m thinking there was a gap between her arrest and her jailing — my mother led a march to try to free other students who had been jailed and arrested. It was during a peaceful march in support of students who had been arrested that a police officer threw a tear gas canister in her face and said, “I want you.”


Because he recognized her as one of the student leaders. And this is something we’re seeing today. I just saw a Washington Post story, where on the very same night, eight different people were blinded in one eye by police, right? So this is not new.

Her dark glasses became so iconic that they’re actually a part of a display at the Florida archives in Tallahassee, where her papers are. They especially wanted to bring attention to her dark glasses, because they’re a symbol of lasting trauma due to specifically tear gas.

No doctor was ever really able to help my mother. Some implied maybe it was her imagination — that it was emotional trauma. But one thing that did stick out to me is that when Florida A&M University did an anniversary reenactment of the tear gassing, I noticed in the comments of the Tallahassee Democrat, activists who had been there started spontaneously posting about the adverse effects that tear gas had had on them for years later. It was like Aha, so it wasn’t just my mother, and it wasn’t in her imagination.

There are so many things to talk about when it comes to police brutality, and police murders. But the right to protest is sacred. So much of what people love about this country is rooted in that freedom of the populace to speak out, and to protest — our absolute right to try to shape this country to live up to its own Constitution. And even beyond, because some of the language in the Constitution of course is exclusive of women, and Black people don’t have full human status. So the Constitution isn’t perfect. But there are aspects of the Constitution that are beautiful.

We really need to take a close look at the kind of chemical weapons and militarized weapons that police departments across the country casually deploy on nonviolent protestors. I saw a story in the Guardian just recently where 20 U.S. police departments and major cities were not adhering to international human rights law. It’s really an international scandal, our current policing system. And the very basic right to protest without losing an eye, without having tear gas wrecking havoc upon your system, without being charged with outlandish crimes to try to trump up long prison sentences and dissuade others from protesting — all of that flies in the face of what it’s supposed to mean to live in the United States.

What do you think your mother would say today, to see this still going on?

My mother knew that the fight was not over. She was always warning us, “Watch out about turning the clock back.” She passed away in 2012. I miss her terribly, but there have been very few political moments where I’d think to myself, Oh, I wish my mom were here to see this. She had already been present at Obama’s inauguration. We all went to Washington D.C. as a family to be present for that. That was a peak moment for her. But politically, yeah, a lot of downhill slides since then.

The violence aside, the police brutality aside, this is the first time I have thought, I wish mom could see this. Because whether or not the media covers them, there are protests going on all over the country still. And I read a statistic that more people have attended the Black Lives Matter protests than in the 1960s. I don’t know if that’s true, but I certainly see it. I see it on social media posts where people’s children are activated, where people of all ethnicities are activated because they get that it’s un-American. And that is significant.

I’d love to hear what you think of the idea of foot soldiers today in the Black Lives Matter movement. There are a few prominent leaders, but it is also a fairly distributed movement.

That’s the perfect illustration of what my mother talked about in terms of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Every city has its leaders, often young people — my mother was college age, 19, 20, 21 when she started her activism. And that’s very true, young people just don’t have the patience to put up with the accommodations that older people often will because they’re just tired. Young people come with new energy. But it doesn’t feel like a top-down structure.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think is important to note?

Well, I would be remiss not to mention the existence of my father, John Due. He’s 85 years old. He and my mother basically were brought together by the movement. They were both at Florida A&M University — she was an undergraduate, he was in the law school. And they basically fell in love as co-activists. He was more behind the scenes, and she was the one getting arrested.

My father was just recently inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. And just a few weeks ago, he got an honorary PhD from the University of Florida. So he’s still active. And as he just told me the other day, or today, “We’re living through interesting times.”

What does he have to say about everything going on?

Well, my father has a notoriously good disposition. So even during the worst moments, like after the Charleston massacre with Dylann Roof, I’ll call my dad and he’s on his way to a meeting. He’s still that same guy, never lets himself get down. At 85, he has a very long view of this.

He will still come to tears discussing how when he was about eight years old in Indiana, his teacher took the class to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And they were not allowed to go in because they were Black. Remembering that can still make him tear up.

He was just reminding me today of how when he was only four, his grandmother told him, “Johnny, it’s dangerous out there.” Which is the same speech I have to give my 16-year-old son when he wants to go walk around town with his friends.

My father’s attitude is to love everybody. And of course, he’s heartened by the protest. I try to learn from him never to get discouraged.

You must miss your mother a lot.

I do. I expected that I would have her a while longer — 74 is still pretty young. But honestly, I really feel like my mother’s activism cut her life short. She knew every time she went on a protest or got arrested that her life was at risk. And that trauma takes a toll, just like soldiers come back from war with PTSD. I think my mother had her own version of that. And there is a mind-body connection.

So the one word of caution I would give today’s activists is to remember that it is a long game. Or rather, I should say a long struggle because it’s not a game. It’s a long struggle. And they need to pace themselves and they need to remember to take care of themselves so that they can continue to fight for others. Just give what you can and save some for yourself and your family too.

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