A fresh look at a key civil rights battle — and its New England connections
In the spring of 1964, the country’s attention turned to St. Augustine, Fla., as segregationist mobs attacked civil rights activists and police deployed cattle prods to disperse crowds, hauling protesters off to jail.
It was one of the bloodiest campaigns of the civil rights movement. Local leaders were savagely beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of at least one assassination plot. Reporters were intimidated and assaulted, and in one particularly dramatic moment, a motel owner poured acid into the water as activists tried to integrate a swimming pool.
It was also, as Boston filmmaker Clennon L. King argues in his documentary, “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement That Transformed America,” a fulcrum point in the broader civil rights struggle, pressuring lawmakers as they considered passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“It was an important civil rights battleground,” said King, whose film garnered an award at the 2015 Roxbury International Film Festival. “That campaign led directly to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Though King first released the film two years ago, he’s added newly discovered historical footage and fresh interviews with participants that highlight the campaign’s New England connections. The new version will be shown twice this month at the Boston Public Library, including a screening Thursday, Feb. 9, at the Copley branch and Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Mattapan branch.
“What I attempted to do was get out of the way in not writing a lot of voice-over, but rather let the folks who were on the front lines tell their story,” said King, a first-time documentary filmmaker who began work on the project around 2002. “I also wanted to complement what they were saying with corroboration vis-a-vis news clippings.”
The result is an hourlong film that uses talking-head interviews and historical media to tell how local activists ignited a campaign that ultimately attracted international attention, prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson once to worry: “Our whole foreign policy and everything else will go to hell over this.”
As the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine had a long history of racial inequality. In 1963, however, Dr. Robert B. Hayling led a series of civil rights protests in town. People galvanized around the movement after four youths were sent to reform school and segregationists opened fire on Hayling’s home, later beating him severely at a Klan rally.
Undeterred, Hayling appealed to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which soon invited a contingent of New Englanders down to Florida. Among those who accepted was Mary Parkman Peabody, mother of then-Massachusetts Governor Endicott Peabody,who was jailed during her visit.
“The major turning point was when the news came down that the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts was coming to St. Augustine,” historian David Nolan says in the film. “This was where St. Augustine stepped onto the national and international scene.”
By the spring of 1964, the civil rights bill had passed in the House of Representatives and was being considered by the Senate. As the film recounts, the SCLC needed a ground campaign to pressure the Senate, and so concentrated heavily on St. Augustine, later winning court approval to lead a series of night marches to the city’s old slave market.
“The days we spent in court, it laid the groundwork for the legal precedent followed in Selma,” Andrew Young, a former executive director of the SCLC who went on to have a career in politics, says in the film. “Without [the court’s] determination of our right to march peacefully, the Selma-to-Montgomery march [in 1965] might never have taken place.”
The marches remained violently opposed, however, and Martin Luther King, who visited St. Augustine in the spring and summer of that year, had to keep his movements secret. (One of the unoccupied residences he rented was firebombed after a local paper published its address.)
“There was no movement that I was a part of in America that was as brutal and violent as the movement in St. Augustine,” Young says during the film. “It’s the only place where the hospital bills were bigger than the hotel bills and the food bills for the movement.”
In the film’s latest iteration, King has rounded out his tale with an interview and footage of former WGBH reporter Ted Mascott, whose recording equipment was confiscated by police. He’s also added new material about Roxbury resident Mimi Jones, who was part of the swim-in that made international headlines when motel owner James Brock poured acid into the pool.
“The water bubbled up like a volcano right in front of my face,” said Jones when reached by telephone. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
One photo of the incident shows Jones screaming as Brock emptied a bottle of muriatic acid into the water. Another, which shows a police officer jumping into the water to arrest the protesters, was published in newspapers around the world, including the Soviet Union’s Izvestia.
“I thought for the longest time that LBJ was speaking hyperbole when he said our whole foreign policy will go to hell over this,” said filmmaker King, who hopes the film will spark further conversations about race. “This little local sort of movement had global implications. People were taking note around the world.”