As the central locations of the 1960s civil rights movement, people think of places like Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham. But what about St. Augustine, Florida, one of the bloodiest and most pivotal flash points in the fight against segregation and institutional racism in America?
The 1964 events in this traditionally sleepy tourist town are the subject of filmmaker Clennon King’s documentary “Passage at St. Augustine,” which is showing at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth.
The free screening will be presented by King, a former TV and print journalist now living in Massachusetts, and Mainer Peter Bancroft. Bancroft, now of Harborside, was one of the protesters jailed alongside Dr. Martin Luther King during that summer’s violent protests, a largely forgotten clash that, as the film compellingly argues, was a pivotal moment in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Like Korea, or Vietnam, these people are veterans,” Clennon King said of his film’s subjects. “Veterans of the civil rights movement are no different from any of these military campaigns — they put their bodies on the front lines to defend American ideals.”
Taking his camera to St. Augustine over a period of more than a decade to interview people on both sides of the 50-year-old conflict, King crafts a stirring, thought-provoking portrait of a town whose racial divide finally exploded in one bloody summer — and continues to this day.
King (no relation to Dr. King, although his father was one of MLK’s attorneys) cites a pair of encounters as inspiration for making “Passage at St. Augustine.” The first was with a white author who presented a comprehensive book about St. Augustine on King’s Jacksonville talk show — a book that omitted all mention of the events of 1964.
“When asked about it, she explained that it ‘wasn’t the angle,’ ” King said.
Later, a black high school teacher approached him with a story about her school “watering down” Martin Luther King Day, claiming that Dr. King hadn’t been active in Florida.
“It was a case of two people — one apologetically ignoring, one not knowing — history. I realized it was my job to tell this story. As a journalist, we write the first draft of history,” he said.
In telling the story of St. Augustine, where demonstrations against segregation and police brutality brought quick and violent response from both the townsfolk and heavily Ku Klux Klan-affiliated law enforcement, King sought out as many of the aging participants as he could.
Those included local dentist and activist Dr. Robert B. Hayling, whose position as leader of St. Augustine’s civil rights movement saw him horrifically beaten by Klansmen, and Mimi Jones, who was immortalized in an infamous photo when, to prevent her and fellow activists from integrating his motel’s swimming pool, St. Augustine businessman James Brock poured acid into the water with them.
In King’s wrenching documentary, the events in St. Augustine came at a crucial time. The Civil Rights Act was stalled in Congress, and President Lyndon Johnson seized on the horrific nightly images of police dogs, cattle prods and brutality to force reluctant lawmakers’ hands.
“The bill was passed within 24 hours,” King said, citing the reporting of the pool incident as a tipping point that broke the filibuster that was holding up the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
King draws parallels between the events in St. Augustine and the present-day “Black Lives Matter” movement — and the racially charged political climate in this election season.
“It’s a textbook definition of how ‘Black Lives Matter’ arose,” said King, “reacting to abusive law enforcement and challenging this kind of abuse.”
In Maine, the least diverse state in the country and one beset with its own racial tensions exacerbated by a governor prone to racially divisive rhetoric, “Passage at St. Augustine” offers attendees an opportunity to examine the parallels.
“For St. Augustine, tourism was everything. After the country saw what was happening in 1964, people did not want to come and the town tried to shut it down whatever way they possibly could. You want to mess with a man, mess with his money—you just don’t see news about St. Augustine in popular media,” King said.
King lauds Bancroft and fellow Mainer Reverend William England for their sacrifice in supporting the black St. Augustinians profiled in the film. England, then a 33-year-old chaplain at Boston University, now lives in Oxford. A proclamation will be read Sunday, declaring Sept. 25 “Rev. William L. England Day” in Maine.
“White audiences have asked, in the midst of Black Lives Matter, what role they can play in improving the situation,” he said. “Nobody’s heard of people like Reverend England or Peter Bancroft, but they put their muscle where their mouth was, got on a bus and paid the price.”
It’s King’s hope that “Passage at St. Augustine” can inspire both discussion and action.
“The heroism of these people effectively ended segregation as we know it, but their sacrifices remained in the shadows, collecting dust,” he said. “For me, I wanted to dust them off — they instruct.”
“Passage at St. Augustine” is screening at 4 p.m. Sunday at Merrill Memorial Library, 215 Main St., Yarmouth. The screening is free and open to the public. For more details, visit yarmouthlibrary.org.
Watch the trailer
Friday: Manhattan Short Film Festival. Be part of the action, as this acclaimed short film fest allows audiences – that’s you! – help to determine the winners of this international competition.
Saturday and Sunday: “Peter and John.” Massachusetts-set period drama (based on the Guy de Maupassant novel) tells the story of two brothers whose love for the same woman causes all manner of starched-collar conflict in 1870s Nantucket.