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Forgotten Chapter of the Civil Rights Era Took Dartmouth Students to Florida Marches

  • A St. Augustine, Fla., motel owner pours acid into the motel's pool, which civil rights activists were trying to integrate in 1964. This and other actions in St. Augustine are a forgotten chapter in the civil rights movement, and are now the subject of "Passage at St. Augustine," a documentary film that includes interviews with Dartmouth College students who participated in the demonstrations and sit-ins.

  • Clennon L. King, a longtime journalist and the director of "Passage at St. Augustine," will attend a screening of the film on Jan. 18, 2017 at Dartmouth College,

  • Ted Mascott, a 1963 Dartmouth College graduate, went to St. Augustine in 1964 to cover the civil rights actions as a young producer for WGBH in Boston.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2017

In the roll call of hallowed places of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Memphis and Atlanta cast the longest shadows.

St. Augustine, Fla., the first and oldest European settlement in the United States, claimed in 1565 by the Spanish for their far-flung empire, rarely makes it onto that list.

Yet Martin Luther King Jr., came to the city between April and June 1964 to bring national attention to the campaign for desegregation by the city’s African-American population, and to urge Northern activists, many of them college students, to travel there to participate in marches.

The opposition to civil rights protests in St. Augustine was so virulent, including shootings, firebombings, beatings and an attempt by local Ku Klux Klan members to murder King while he was there, that it brought the city international notoriety.

These events, in turn, helped end the weeks-long filibuster by a Southern bloc of Democratic senators against passage of the Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law on July 2, 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, ending Jim Crow segregation.

But with the passage of five decades, recognition of St. Augustine’s role in the long, unfinished march toward equal rights has faded in the national consciousness.

Which is precisely why Clennon L. King, a Boston-based filmmaker and journalist, worked for more than a decade to make his documentary, Passage at St. Augustine, which will be screened free-of-charge to the public on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at Dartmouth College.

The hour-long screening, part of the college’s weeklong commemoration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., begins at 6 p.m. in Moore Hall’s Filene Auditorium. A post-film discussion with Clennon King follows at 7 p.m.

“It’s a missing chapter,” King said of St. Augustine in a phone interview from his home in Boston.

King has done numerous screenings and discussions at colleges, museums, and film festivals, and the documentary won the Henry Hampton Award of Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking at the 2015 Roxbury International Film Festival in Boston.

It is not at all unusual, he said, for people to say to him during discussion or afterwards that they had no idea that St. Augustine was even part of the civil rights movement.

There’s a reason for that: “The powers that be worked very hard to wipe that clean from the hard drive of history,” King said.

For many years, he said, the city, which relies heavily on tourism, didn’t acknowledge its pathological hostility to desegregation efforts. And although Florida is in the South, King said, people have not necessarily connected it with the campaign for civil rights in the Deep South.

The documentary also features archival film footage and interviews with some Dartmouth students and alumni who volunteered to go to St. Augustine in 1964 to be part of the sit-ins and marches that were led by Robert B. Hayling, a resident of the city who was a dentist by trade and an organizer in the local chapter of the NAACP.

Ned Greeley, a Massachusetts native who graduated from Dartmouth in 1965, was one of the students to make the trip to St. Augustine, where he took part in a protest, and was promptly arrested.

By comparison to St. Augustine’s black population, and Martin Luther King and his aides, Greeley said, the risk he took was not as great. But the risk was still there.

“I was in jail for six days,” Greeley said in a phone interview from his home in Silver Spring, Md. Jail consisted of a pine shed. “One of the black guys said if they let you go, don’t run because they can shoot you in the back.”

Clennon King’s road to St. Augustine started with his family history.

Now 57, King was born in Albany, Ga., but spent his teenage years at the Putney School in Vermont and got his B.A. from Tulane University in New Orleans before continuing on to work as an assistant to Andrew Young when he was mayor of Atlanta. He also has had a long career in journalism, in both print and television.

His father, C.B. King, was a distinguished and indefatigable lawyer who, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, defended Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, some of the Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King himself in court. (In honor of C.B. King’s accomplishments, the federal courthouse in Albany, Ga., now bears his name.)

King’s uncles were also central in the Civil Rights movement in Georgia, including the Albany Movement of 1961, whose goal was to desegregate Albany. And his paternal grandfather, Clennon W. King, Sr., was a Tuskegee Institute graduate who had worked for Booker T. Washington and founded the local Albany NAACP chapter.

From 1996 to 2000s Clennon King was a reporter at an NBC affiliate, WTLV/WJXX, in Jacksonville, Fla.

A white, St. Augustine historian (who was later interviewed by King for the film) called him to pitch a story. The city was on the verge of tearing down some buildings closely associated with the civil rights protests, including a motel where, in 1964, a group of young people had tried to integrate the pool, leading to the motel owner, James Brock, pouring acid into the water. A photograph of a young African-American woman in the pool reacting in horror as Brock dumped the acid caused a global sensation.

At around the same time, King had been reading Taylor Branch’s three-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil Rights movement, and had finished the second volume: Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965, which covered the events in St. Augustine.

Two other incidents fueled King’s desire to research the city’s civil rights history. On weekends he hosted a news magazine show that broadcast features about northeastern Florida.

One weekend, one of the show’s guests was a woman publicizing the most recent edition of her pictorial history of St. Augustine. King was stunned when he realized that the book not only omitted the city’s civil rights history, but also contained no significant portraits of any African Americans or African-American life in the city. When he asked the woman on camera why that was, her only answer was that that was the angle she’d chosen.

Then, while grocery shopping, he was approached by an African-American teacher who said that the school in Jacksonville where she taught seemed to be watering down the celebrations of Martin Luther King’s birthday. After Clennon King told her that Martin Luther King had been on the ground in both Jacksonville and St. Augustine, she told him this was the first she’d heard of it. 

When Clennon King stitched all those pieces together it seemed clear to him that he had to tell the story of St. Augustine.

“I’m fascinated by these very local stories that have national influence,” King said. “These stories are everywhere, and they’re phenomenal. The question is: will we mine them?”

Over the course of 13 years, King traveled to St. Augustine to record interviews with people who had been on either side of the protests.

These included African American women and men who had persisted in the fight for equal rights, including Hayling, who died in 2015; the son of a former Klan leader; the daughter of the sheriff who had encouraged violence against the protesters; and some of the Northern students.

He tried to get an interview with the former motel owner, Brock, but was unsuccessful, although he talked to him at his front door, a scene recorded on camera.

There are also excerpts of audio recordings of President Johnson talking both to staff and to Southern politicians about the volatile situation in St. Augustine, as well as rarely seen archival footage of protestors marching on the town’s central plaza and attempting to integrate the beaches, which was met with violence.

One of the clips in the documentary shows a young Dartmouth graduate, Ted Mascott, who was working as a producer for the fledgling WGBH radio station in Boston. He went to St. Augustine to cover the demonstrations, including the effort of a group of local high school students, as well as some prominent Northerners, including the mother of the then-governor of Massachusetts, to desegregate a restaurant. When they refused orders to leave, they were arrested on trespassing charges.

The film clip shows a policeman grabbing Mascott’s radio equipment from his shoulder, and Mascott was also roughed up. He was arrested and jailed, and his equipment was confiscated and never returned.

“A reporter being arrested was pretty big news,” Mascott said in a phone interview from Naples, Fla. His grandfather, who lived in Brooklyn and was loyal to the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite, happened to see coverage of his grandson’s arrest on the nightly broadcast.

To hear the hatred and bitterness in the voices of those who wanted no part of civil rights for citizens of color, and to see it in their faces, was frightening, Mascott said. As was the prevailing lawlessness.

“It was like being in a foreign country with different rules, and no sense of security in the sense of one’s rights and safety, and yet it was your own country,” Mascott said.

He was struck, he said, by the “courage on the part of the black residents and their non-violent behavior. People in authority would have loved to have had the residents do something; they were trying to provoke them.”

Greeley compared the job that the U.S. has done in really coming to grips with its history of slavery, discrimination and institutional racism with the forensic examination done by Germany after World War II. In his view, Germany has been more thorough and candid in its self-examination.

Indeed, it was not really until the turn of this century that St. Augustine belatedly began to mark the events that helped to transform the Civil Rights movement.

In 2004, a group of local citizens banded together under the rubric ACCORD (Anniversary to Commemorate the Civil Rights Demonstrations) to mark the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

And in 2007 and 2008, the ACCORD group, with help from the national defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which has offices in the city, unveiled 20 sites on the ACCORD Freedom Trail.

King’s mission in bringing Passage at St. Augustine to audiences is two-fold.

For African Americans, one of the “main messages I try to impress (is), stop waiting on white people to tell your own history. We don’t need to do that, this is our history, this stuff is there, that’s our own challenge. St. Augustine is just one chapter: there are millions of stories out there.”

And for whites who ask him, “What can we do?” he has some thoughts.

“This is where I tip my hat to those people who got out of their comfort zone, and they went to the front lines to stand up for what is right. There is something to be said for those who made that sacrifice,” King said.

On the other hand, recognizing that not everybody has that temperament, he said, “I’m of a school of thought that people do what they can when they can. A part of the program is not simply about the film but to have a discussion on (race). Part of the reason why we are where we are is because we don’t talk about it.”

Passage at St. Augustinewill be screened free-of-charge to the public on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 6 p.m. in Moore Hall’s Filene Auditorium at Dartmouth College. For more information on the film go to passageatstaugustine.com.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.