Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham -- the names of these Deep South towns are forever linked to the Civil Rights era in America. But according to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was an unsung city -- St. Augustine, Fla. – whose critical role in persuading Congress to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 is often overlooked.
On Saturday that city unveiled a memorial to the place where a former congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, was nearly beaten to death by racial segregationists.
Dr. King would later write that St. Augustine was made to “bear the cross” of racial violence which generated the backlash that broke the impasse over the legislation in Congress in 1964.
“Even people in civil rights organizations didn’t know about the importance of St. Augustine,” Young told Newsmax in an exclusive interview on the eve of the memorial’s commemoration. “They were so totally focused on Washington because that’s where the debate was going on. But where the crisis was, was St. Augustine.”
The pastor and 60s-era leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference recounted for Newsmax the historic role that America’s oldest city played in the struggle for the passage of the legislation.
The greatest irony of all, Young says, is that Dr. King directed him to go to St. Augustine in June 1964 not to start the protests there, but rather to end them.
Both King and Young feared that escalating racial tensions in St. Augustine could easily lead to a violent clash between protesters and Ku Klux Klan members.
“In June, Martin Luther King realized what was going on, and how tense it was,” said Young. “And he said if there is violence in St. Augustine, no matter who starts it, and if the black community responds to the violence of the Klan, even a defensive violence, it will be blown out of proportion and it will be used by the filibusters in the senate to kill the Civil Rights bill. So he sent me to stop the movement, to convince them they were better off to stop marching, to let the federal government act.”
Young said the first thing he did when he arrived in the town, located about 40 miles southeast of Jacksonville on Florida’s east coast, was to cruise by the market pavilion locals at the time knew as “the old slave market.” There he saw a mob of several hundred Klan members waiting for the marchers.
His next stop was the starting point for the march, a local church. Civil rights demonstrators, blacks and whites, were already gathered there.
Young approached the crowd, trying to figure out how to persuade them that marching that day was a bad idea. But upon seeing him, the local organizer announced: “Dr. King has sent Rev. Young down here to lead this march.”
Realizing it was already too late for cooler heads to prevail, Young decided to lead the march in the hope that he could head off any violence. The march began with Young in the lead, and soon he saw the segregationists’ gathering up ahead.
“I felt when we got to the place where the people saw the Klan, that I could explain to them what Dr. King had said about not needing to march, that we could trust this to the Congress, and the less we do right now the better,” Young told Newsmax. “Because he was afraid to risk violence, and we had not done a lot of nonviolent training in the black community there.
“All it would have taken was a half dozen of those guys throwing bricks and bottles, and we would have a race war,” he said.
But Young also told the crowd that if they insisted on marching further, “I’m here to lead you.” And lead them he did.
“We stopped and prayed,” Young recalled. “I said before we prayed, ‘Anybody who wants to go back to the church, now’s the time to go back.’ It was quite dangerous down there. I couldn’t even guarantee that any of us would live if we marched into that angry mob.
“So when I finished praying, an old lady started singing the old spiritual, ‘Be not dismayed, whate’re betied, God will take care of you!’
“Well, I believed that,” Young said, “but I never tested it on a Saturday night with the Klan.”
Young, who served as a voice of moderation in the Civil Rights movement, said he had always had success in other cities reasoning with police and mobs. So in an effort to head off the looming violence, he asked his fellow marchers to remain on one side of the street, while he walked over and tried to reason with the leaders of the opposing group.
“I thought I was beginning to communicate with them,” he said. “Then somebody walked up behind me and hit me with a blackjack. Somebody else grazed me with a punch. That’s when I went down and I got kicked around. But I wasn’t hurt, I didn’t feel any pain.”
Luckily, a state trooper stepped in to stop the beating. Otherwise, the trooper later said, Young would have been beaten to death.
A bloodied Young then rose to his feet, and again took his place at the head of the march.
“One of the principles of the movement is you can’t let violence stop you,” Young said. “So once the violence had been engaged, we had to keep going.
“So we went down to the next corner, to the front of the slave market, and we all attempted to cross the street again. This time somebody kicked and hit me, but this time I didn’t get knocked out, and I kept talking. It must have been the sheriff in the crowd who said, ‘Let them through. And we walked on through.”
That was the first of a series of marches throughout June that captured the media’s eye even as the debate over the Civil Rights Act raged in Washington. They culminated in the arrest of King himself on June 11, and the infamous images of the owner of the Manson Motor Lodge, James Brock, pouring acid into the motel’s pool in assault against African-Americans who were bathing in it. And through the struggle, the black community refrain from resorting to violence.
“After they beat us up marching in the white community,” Young told Newsmax, “when [the segregationists] marched in the black community, the black community was out there welcoming them and singing the old Negro spiritual, ‘I Love Everybody.’
“It was a dramatic contrast, showing that in some way moral superiority could combat physical violence; and that you can’t overcome violence with violence, but you can overcome it with the moral superiority of nonviolence,” he said.
The day after the assault against Young, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., ended his 14-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, which essentially ended voter-registration laws targeting African-Americans and outlawed segregation. On June 19, the bill passed the Senate, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law July 2, 1964.
In the nearly 50 years since those turbulent days, much has changed in America and the city of St. Augustine. So much so that it is now seeking to preserve the historic role it played in the Civil Rights movement.
As part of that effort, the city is unveiling a permanent monument to honor Young’s contribution: A 25-foot-long coquina and granite walkway with bronze castings of his footsteps, depicting where he stood to address the angry mob that day. The memorial includes famous quotations from the Civil Rights era.
Young, 79, will speak at the unveiling and sign copies of his new book, Walk in My Shoes, in which Young shares his battle-tested wisdom with the next generation of American leaders.
“St. Augustine has a rich history going way back to the Union army in the Civil War, native American Seminoles, and black Indians who were mixtures of the escaped slave population and the Indians of central Florida,” Young told Newsmax. “When you go from Ponce de Leon to the present, St. Augustine has been through all of the problems of a small American city. And they’re still working together trying to solve them.”
An initiative has been launched in St. Augustine to build a permanent Civil Rights Museum in Lincolnville, the city’s historic black neighborhood, in time for the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Also, St. Augustine celebrates its 450th anniversary as a city in 2015.
Another important milestone in the Civil Rights movement will arrive this summer, when officials unveil the Martin Luther King Memorial in the Nation’s Capital.
“It’s very important to me that the world understand what Martin Luther King was trying to do,” Young told Newsmax, “and that his motivations were by and large Christian, spiritual, nonracial, and that he really believed that America had to take the lead in the world in solving problems without violence.”
In the book, Young says he “would have taken a bullet for Martin.”
Asked to comment on that, Young told Newsmax: “It was a commitment to him and the movement, that he was the voice and spirit and brains of the movement, and he was far more important than any other, and even all of us.
“He used to say all the time, ‘Everybody’s going to die, and nobody can decide when they die or how they die. The only choice you have is what you die for. And you have to begin living for what you’re going to die for -- because it’s so easy to die for nothing.”
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