Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Film Brings Dr. Martin Luther King's Florida Encarceration to Light

An Old Town Trolley Tour is one of the best ways to see Saint Augustine, the oldest city of European origin in America; the tour guides are famous for their entertaining but fact-packed monologues, and Trolley Tours management, which has a strong Ben & Jerry social responsibility flavor to it, takes its educational role very seriously. So imagine their surprise when a recent visitor, a professor from California no less, complained that her tour guide was over-selling the city's role in the civil rights movement. She went so far as to state that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was NOT jailed in Saint Augustine.

Dr. King most certainly WAS jailed in Saint Augustine, as were hundreds of other people. Sometimes so many people were arrested that St. John's County Sheriff's Department held them in open air stockages, in the Florida sun. Dr. King is shown in custody in Florida in the above photograph from the Library of Congress AND in newsreels excerpted in Dare Not Walk Alone AND as described in Jeremy Dean's 2005 interview with the late James Brock, the man whose restaurant Dr. King was attempting to enter when the police bundled him into the back seat of a police car (with a large police dog for company).

Not only that, one of the houses at which Dr. King stayed during his time in Saint Augustine was fired upon, as reported in the St. Augustine Record, and recorded in this great AP photo captioned: "Dr. King looks at a glass door of his rented beach cottage in St. Augustine, Fla. that was shot into by someone unknown on June 5, 1964. King took time out from conferring with St. Augustine integration leaders to inspect the house, which no one was in at the time of the shooting."

That bullet hole is still there today, that's how much the people who own the house respect Dr. King's legacy. It is historical fact that Dr. King spent a large part of April through June of 1964 coordinating what he referred to as "our push here in St. Augustine" describing it as a prelude to "a long hot summer." (You can hear his exact words in the film's trailer.) This carefully worded statement was a warning to the Southern Democrats in the US Senate who had vowed to kill the civil rights act with procedural maneuvers.

Dr. King made it clear that he and his followers were prepared to "march the streets of this city until the walls of segregation come tumbling down." For Dr. King had figured out there was a limit to how many nights in a row politicians could watch scenes of demonstrators being beaten by police and white extremists before they did the right thing and make segregation illegal.

There is enormous irony in someone suggesting that Saint Augustine is today 'over-playing its civil rights hand.' In fact, it has taken years of effort and pressure from people like historian David Nolan and groups like the 40th Accord and their supporters, to bring this part of the city's past into the light alongside other momentous local events (like the landing of Ponce De Leon in 1513, the slaughter of the Huguenots and founding of the city in 1565, and so much more).

Given all that, we at DNWA were prepared to be quite upset with the person who complained to Trolley Tours, but then we took a deep breath and looked around. That's when it became clear that across most of America the role of Saint Augustine in the civil rights movement has been left out or glossed over for the past 40 years, to such an extent that many people, even scholars, react in disbelief when they hear the historical facts. For example, Dr. King's efforts and arrest in Saint Augustine do not appear in many of the timelines of civil rights movement.

These timelines often have a big gap between the introduction of the Civil Rights Act in 1963 and its signing in July of 1964. What do they think Dr. King was doing in that time? He sure as heck was not on vacation. Yet while many timelines credit 'Bloody Sunday' in Selma, in March of 1965, as the catalyst for the Voting Rights Act passing in August of 1965, few note the repeated beatings and imprisonment that people suffered in Saint Augustine in relation to the very first civil rights act. Even the Library of Congress listing for the photo above has it wrongly identified as being taken in 1962.

So, we understand why people might be surprised to learn the true story of Saint Augustine's fight for equality in 1963 and 1964. After all, the all-white city fathers of the time worked very hard to hush it up, afraid that it would hurt the tourism trade on which the city was economically dependent. These days we see signs of a more enlightened attitude, a willingness to honor those who risked their lives so that all of us could enjoy 'a more perfect union.'

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