Collecting pieces of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine

Clennon L. King brings his "Passage at St. Augustine" to the Strand Theatre August 15. — Stacey Rupolo

 St. Augustine, Fla., was wiping away its history. Clennon King went grocery shopping one afternoon. A woman calling his name ran up to Mr. King, recognizing him from his days as a TV reporter — she had no idea what had happened in St. Augustine.

Esther Burgess (center) goes to jail in March 1964 after sitting in at the segregated Ponce De Leon Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. — Courtesy Clennon King

The motel swimming pool where a wade-in took place, where Mimi Jones protested and acid poured into the water by the motel manager — leveled. Where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested — leveled. The hotel where Esther Burgess of Vineyard Haven was arrested with Mary Peabody — leveled. The jail where they were kept — gone too. You’re more likely to be on a tour of St. Augustine that shows you wax Star Wars figures than the Foot Soldiers Monument where the old slave market stands, a place where protesters gathered and began marches. The woman in the grocery store, a schoolteacher, told Mr. King her students didn’t know about what happened at St. Augustine.

“It’s not a part of the narrative Florida can sell — Klan rallies? People don’t want to see that,” Mr. King said in a phone interview.

Mr. King is the filmmaker behind the documentary, “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matters Movement that Transformed America.” He has been putting it together since 2012. The awardwinning film screens Tuesday, August 15, at 4 pm at the Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs. The screening includes a discussion with Mr. King as well as veteran journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

St. Augustine is one of the oldest free black settlements in America, and arguably home to one of the bloodiest and most influential protests of the civil rights movement, one you’ve likely never heard of. The Montgomery bus boycotts, the Selma march, or the Birmingham campaign tend to dominate the narratives of the civil rights movement, illustrating what we assume are the most egregious interactions during the movement, but they serve as mere snapshots, St. Augustine only adding to the collection of untold protest stories.

“Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matters Movement that Transformed America” collects the scattered stories of what happened in this town during the civil rights movement, creating a portrait of the town’s heavy history in a mere hour.

“The only reason there’s an aha! moment and people are like, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t know anything about that,’ is because there are thousands of stories like this. It’s just that I went in as a journalist and created what wasn’t there — because it is there, but you have to construct it,” Mr. King said.

Mr. King collected interviews with church leaders, civil rights activists, the son of a notorious Klansman, and recordings of phone calls Lyndon B. Johnson made during his presidency where he candidly spoke about St. Augustine. He traveled around the country to build the film, even having to sleep in Logan Airport one night just to collect the voices needed to tell this story. Many of the interviewees shown in the film have since died, like Esther Burgess of Vineyard Haven.

During the movement, the Episcopal church in Boston worked in conjunction with St. Augustine, and needed the support from the North; Mrs. Burgess wasted no time.

“My mother, who was the wife of a prominent Episcopal bishop, [John Melville Burgess,] one of the big things is she didn’t discuss it with my father. She just up and left,” said her daughter Julia Burgess.

Among other women protesting stood Mary Peabody, the mother of the governor of Massachusetts. Police came and arrested Mrs. Burgess, but not Mrs. Peabody, until Mrs. Burgess convinced her otherwise, a moment that turned their protest into a movement-making headline. A prominent, politically affiliated white woman went to jail protesting, but not without the nudge from Mrs. Burgess.

Sheriff L.O. Davis reading to Mary Peabody, Dr. Robert Hayling and Mrs. John M. Burgess. The protesters remained seated attempting to integrate the dining room at Ponce De Leon Motor Lodge. — Courtesy Clennon King

“Because my mother was so light-skinned, when they arrested her they thought she was white and put her in the jail cell with the white women — and then she told them she was a Negro and of course they moved her down to a different cell, with 57 women and four beds,” Julia Burgess said.

Mrs. Burgess’ daughters Margaret and Julia say their mother did not fear the dog a policemen put in the backseat on her way to jail, but feared the moment they released her in the middle of the night. She took a taxi, unsure of the driver’s intentions and her safety, but she made it to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office.

“The thing that is really the most important about the whole event, which was really the bloodiest event — this is where Andrew Young was injured badly — it precipitates the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Margaret Burgess, Esther’s other daughter.

Nonviolent protests were dangerous. Wade-in protests at beaches meant beatings and heads of protesters held underwater, and wade-ins at swimming pools meant acid poured into the water with protesters — like Mimi Jones.

“I think our history is important for all of us, it creates instructors for our future,” said civil rights activist Mimi Jones. “There are lots of stories that haven’t been told; my story is only one of those stories — just a spoke in the wheel.”

She recalls how many young people were involved in the movement, and the dedication of her teenage years to the movement. Her mother always told her, “Make a difference, make a difference.” Like Clennon King — his father was an attorney who represented Martin Luther King Jr. in the early ’60s — she came from a lineage of believers in taking action.

Esther Burgess and Mary Peabody making headlines. The photograph shows Esther Burgess stepping into the backseat of a police vehicle with the police dog already in the car. — Courtesy Clennon King

“Here you are viewing yourself as educated, here you are viewing yourself being literate, and here you are viewing yourself as being informed, and you, I’m sure, have never heard of the significance of St. Augustine through what this film tells,” Mr. King said.

Ms. Jones and the Burgess sisters, on their mother’s behalf, will be honored at the August 15 screening.


The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will present the awardwinning film “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement that Transformed America,” Tuesday, August 15, from 4 to 6 pm at the Strand Theater, 11 Oak Bluffs Ave. in Oak Bluffs.