“Passage at St. Augustine” features longtime Vineyard resident

Esther Burgess’ acts of civil rights leadership are acknowledged in new civil rights documentary.

Photo courtesy of AugustineMonic

In the long and often violent history of the civil rights movement, the city of St. Augustine, Fla., is not often mentioned. But a months-long series of events and actions there, which involved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders, actually played a pivotal role in the passing of civil rights legislation.

A new documentary, Passage at St. Augustine, by filmmaker and journalist Clennon L. King, shines a spotlight on a piece of history which Mr. King refers to as “arguably the bloodiest campaign of the civil rights movement.”

On Feb. 7 at the Howes House in West Tisbury Mr. King will unveil the preliminary cut of the film, which has been 20 years in the making. The first-time screening, with an introduction by Mr. King, is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. King was invited by League member Julia Burgess, whose mother was interviewed for the film. The late Esther Burgess was one of four women (the only African American) who traveled to St. Augustine in 1964 and were subsequently arrested.

In 2003, Mr. King made the trip from Washington, D.C., where he had interviewed a former New York Times journalist, to the Vineyard specifically to interview Ms. Burgess. “I flew into Logan and overnighted it at South Station,” he said in a phone interview. “On my return the buses weren’t running, so I hitched a ride back to Boston.” The journey paid off. Mr. King, who interviewed dozens of those involved in the actions, was very impressed with the former Bostonian: “I had a huge amount of respect for Esther Burgess, this Canadian transplant.”

Among the other women who traveled to Florida in 1964 was the mother of the sitting governor of Massachusetts. “But Mrs. Burgess was the one who showed a rare leadership,” said Mr. King. Ms. Burgess passed away less than a year after the interview.

The footage sat on a shelf for more than a decade while Mr. King pursued various career paths, including positions as a video and print journalist for, among other media organizations, WGBH and the Boston Globe.

Previously Mr. King had screened rough cuts and footage from the film, but he was unable to raise money to complete the documentary until his brother stepped up and offered some of his winnings from a Powerball windfall.

In order to remain true to his vision, Mr. King taught himself film editing and finished the project in record time — partly at the urging of his girlfriend, and partly to meet the deadline for the Vineyard screening.

The one-hour documentary features a number of contemporary interviews with many of those involved, plus lots of 1960s footage, and archival interviews with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other key players, such as Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian. The film also includes interviews with members of the opposition, including Klansmen and the daughter of the segregationist sheriff.

“I approached this film very much through a journalist’s lens to give balance,” said Mr. King. “I was able to get access to the other side. As a journalist, what I’ve specialized in is getting interviews that no one else could get,” he said.

Mr. King’s father was a lawyer for the Reverend King. The younger Mr. King previously worked for former U.S. congressman and mayor of Atlanta Andrew Jackson Young, who was was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the 1960s and was a supporter and friend of Dr. King’s.

“I come by the subject matter honestly,” said Mr. King, adding, “It’s not uncommon for a journalist to fall in love with a story. For me it was always St. Augustine.”

With the aid of the archival footage, the documentary unflinchingly depicts powerful but graphic scenes such as civil rights foot soldiers being beaten by Klansmen and cops, a white hotel owner pouring acid into a swimming pool in which protesters were holding a wade-in, and other shocking events that have helped stamp those involved with the civil rights movement as fearless heroes.

This fascinating film will shed some light on an all-but-forgotten yet crucial piece of civil rights history. Mr. King refers to the St. Augustine movement as “the catalyst by which the Civil Rights Bill [Civil Rights Act of 1964] was passed.”

“The Senate fought it tooth and nail in one of the longest filibusters in history. It was not passed until July of 1964. After JFK’s death, [the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.] needed a campaign to fan the flames to get this bill passed. The fires of Birmingham had cooled. It was because of the bloodiness of St. Augustine that the bill got passed.”

Clennon King is pleased that he is finally able to fulfill a personal mission: “I had been entrusted with the stories of these people. Half of them are dead. I felt that I owed it to them and to history to have this story told.”

AugustineMonica Films presents Passage to St. Augustine at the Howes House at 9:00 am on Sunday, Feb. 7. A brunch will precede the screening, starting at 8:30 am. For additional information, call 508-693-3338 or email burgessjbb@gmail.com.