Clennon L. King’s film opens with views of St. Augustine as a tourist town packaged to the world as white sandy beaches, where women in bathing suits run gaily to the ocean, where a child in plaid swim trunks creates a drip sand castle on the beach and a chic ingénue lolls in a one-piece suit against the railing of a kidney-shaped pool at the new Monson Motor Lodge. It’s America circa 1964 — modern, stylish, wholesome, and so wonderfully carefree. What’s not to love if you’re white?
A Passage at St. Augustine shows that world disrupted. After lunch-counter sit-ins and night marches through downtown, on the eve of the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding, the walls that kept St. Augustine segregated began to tumble. That June, some 75 African-American youths waged a wade-in at the segregated beach. The newsreel shows them walking two and three abreast toward the ocean in the same close-fitting swim trunks and one-piece styles of the promotional footage. As they walk across the sand to the water, the film erupts as whites leap from a crowd, attacking the demonstrators, flailing at them with axe handles and fists and insults. Police try to intervene, grabbing at people, but it’s a mob scene.
“This is what the American people sat down to in the spring and summer of 1964,” explains St. Augustine historian David Nolan in the film. “They turned on their TV news, and they wanted to throw up.”
Clennon L. King first began collecting interviews for his documentary 13 years ago. He’d moved to Jacksonville in 1996 for a job as a television reporter for First Coast News. When Nolan contacted him because he feared the city would allow the landmarks of the Civil Rights Era to be destroyed, King understood the importance of the story. At the time, both the Monson Motor Lodge and the Ponce de Leon Hotel faced demolition. (Both have since been torn down and replaced).
King did a story about Nolan, and he started thinking about how the witnesses to the city’s civil rights history were endangered, too. When King left First Coast News in 2000, he bought a cheap movie camera, taught himself how to use it and went about the area, seeking interviews from anyone who would talk.
“I knew then I had to do something to get these guys before they disappeared, just like the landmarks,” says King.
King sought out people from both sides of the struggle. He interviewed the St. Augustine police chief, who blamed the trouble on outsiders. He interviewed St. Augustine dentist Robert B. Hayling, who was a force behind much of the movement locally. And he interviewed a young white thug who says it was exciting to beat up demonstrators.
“Imagine if there was a film that included people who fought on both sides of the Battle of Gettysburg?” King suggests. “I had this very important battle to document.”
Among the film’s most remarkable and disturbing segments are firsthand accounts of a Ku Klux Klan rally that took place south of St. Augustine in September 1963.
With his wife and children in his pickup truck, the Rev. Ronald Wilson went at his father’s behest. He describes seeing the American and Confederate flags on display and hearing the crackle of large crosses ablaze in the field where the Klan gathered. “It was something,” he says, still quaking at the memory.
Dentist Hayling and James Jackson also recall that night. They’d driven with two other African-American men to spy on the proceedings. When they were discovered, the Klansmen beat them viciously. “I didn’t know white people could be so barbaric,” Jackson says. It stopped, according to Jackson, only when St. Johns County Sheriff L.O. Davis stepped out from the crowd. Wilson describes how sheriff’s deputies arrested Hayling and the others. As the police cars left, Wilson says, the crowd joined together in singing, “God Bless America.”
The film’s climax is an indelible moment in St. Augustine history — The Monson Motor Lodge swim-in on June 18, 1964. News photos of the scene went international. A small group of African-American youths are gathered in the middle of the pool, horrified, as Monson owner James Brock pours a gallon of muriatic acid into the water.
We can hear audio of President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a phone call from the Oval Office. “Our whole foreign policy and everything else will go to hell over this,” Johnson complains.
The day after Monson’s hellish act, the shocking pictures were seen worldwide, and the U.S. Senate voted to approve the Civil Rights Act. Senators ended a filibuster that had prevented the vote 10 days earlier. King ties the victory directly to the events in St. Augustine.
A Passage at St. Augustine is the third documentary about St. Augustine during the civil rights struggle. Filmmaker King is the son of the attorney who represented the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a landmark case in Albany, Georgia. In part, family history compelled him to finish the film, but something about it stayed with him.
“I really wanted not to die with my song still inside me,” Clennon King says. “For me, that song has been St. Augustine.”