Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Greatest Civil Rights Story Never Told

Perhaps the comment we hear most often after screening Dare Not Walk Alone can be paraphrased as: "I never knew that." There are variations, such as "I had no idea this happened" or "They don't teach you this in school." But they all add up to a simple fact: What happened in St. Johns County, Florida, in 1964 is probably the greatest civil rights story never told.

After all, the events of that particular year, in that particular place, caused the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be passed. Those events alone did not create the act, but the act was stalled in congress and seriously in doubt until the brave protesters, black and white, demonstrated on the streets and beaches of Saint Augustine to show that--regardless of how much they were beaten and abused--they would not back down, nor would they fight back. This last fact perfectly illustrates the power and the genius of Dr. King's non-violent protest strategy. Basically it sent a message to congress that went something like this: The world will continue to see nightly images of black Americans being attacked by white Americans until you change the law.

Yet this chapter in the long march to liberate America from the evils of segregation does not show up on the timelines of civil rights history. You can check this out for yourself by visiting these links, the top 5 results from a Google search on these words: civil rights timeline.

  1. Milestones in the modern civil rights movement
  2. CNN Civil Rights Movement Timeline
  3. Seattle Times MLK Timeline
  4. Timeline of the American Civil Rights Movement UC Irvine
  5. PBS African American World Timeline
If you dig deeper, into the top ten results for this topic, you still find NO mention of Saint Augustine or even Florida. Considering that Dr. King was jailed in Saint Augustine and one of the the houses he stayed in was fired upon you would think it merited a mention, but no.

Indeed, when you read these time lines it is easy to get the idea that the passage of the first civil rights act came out of nowhere. But listen to President Johnson speaking on White House tapes about the protests in Saint Augustine, as documented in Dare Not Walk Alone:
"Our whole foreign policy and everything else could go to hell over this."
It is clear that what the Florida protesters accomplished was both provocative and precipitous, crucial and critical. Equally clear from our research is the fact that their role has been lost to history, until now.

Jeremy Dean, who directed the film, is to be applauded for repeatedly making this point to the producers. It was Jeremy who kept saying "They don't teach this stuff in school." It was the producer, Richard Mergener, and the executive producers, Stephen and Chey Cobb, who decided to take this on faith, knowing that if Jeremy was right, the film would have considerable importance as an educational tool. But they also knew that if Jeremy was wrong, and everybody had already heard all about this, then the film's appeal would be considerably undermined. After all, being some twenty years older then Jeremy, they were in school when these events took place. They really didn't know what had been taught about civil rights since then. Thankfully, Jeremy was right!

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