Civil rights leader speaks about race relations then and now

By Cal Colgan |
Photo by Phil Sunkel

Andrew Young is no stranger to St. Augustine’s racial tensions.

The former UN ambassador and mayor of Atlanta came to St. Augustine last week to speak to Flagler College about the city’s role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and to present his documentary, Crossing St. Augustine, to Flagler and the St. Augustine community in Flagler’s auditorium. The film contains interviews with numerous locals who participated in the city’s civil rights movement and talks about Young’s visit to St. Augustine in June 1964.

That year, Young became one of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s primary lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By that June, tensions between the protesting black residents of St. Augustine and the white community had made King weary about the success of the national civil rights movement.

“Dr. King was afraid that if violence broke out in St. Augustine on the part of blacks, that would kill the whole civil rights movement there,” Young said, “and so he sent me to St. Augustine to get people to stop demonstrating and call off the movement.”

Young tried to persuade the black residents of St. Augustine to stop demonstrating until Congress had passed 1964’s Civil Rights Bill, but the black community was determined to continue their fight against racial segregation. With Young as an organizer, black residents of St. Augustine faced conflicts with their white supremacist neighbors and even St. Johns County Sheriff L.O. Davis, who deputized the racist Ancient City Gun Club. But on July 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill into law.

Almost 46 years later, Young said that while legal segregation is gone, there are still remnants of its legacy here in St. Augustine. “(T)here still doesn’t seem to be a sense in which St. Augustine, black and white, work together,” he said.

Young said that unlike other racial battlegrounds like Birmingham, Ala. and Savannah, Ga., prominent members of the white and black communities did not work together for racial integration after the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law. In his film, Young said the fact that racial divisions still exist in St. Augustine can be seen by the lack of black locals living and working in the areas downtown that attract the most tourism.

“Most of the faces downtown are as white today as they were nearly half a century ago,” he said. “Segregation is not enforced here, but it still does exist.”

The racial segregation that continues to exist in St. Augustine might be more a factor of money than politics. In a speech to Flagler students at the Gamache-Koger Theatre the afternoon before screening the film, Young said economic divisions are the main obstacle to racial and social equality in the U.S. “What we tend to conserve is privilege, and that’s both black and white,” he said.

“Right now we’re in a very difficult time where it’s almost impossible to guarantee that you and your children will be able to enjoy the same middle class lifestyle that Martin Luther King (Jr.) was talking about.”

Flagler junior and history major Jillian McClure said she agreed with Young’s statements about economic inequality. McClure helped to bring Young to Flagler to present his film by contacting Young’s charity group, the Andrew Young Foundation, for a research paper she is writing on black churches’ role in the civil rights movement. She said she thinks race and class discrimination still exist, and not everyone in the U.S. gets the same opportunities.

“I think as a nation and as a community in St. Augustine, we need to work to overcome those problems,” she said.

McClure also said she thinks that many people in St. Augustine still do not know much about the city’s civil rights history. She said that, in her research, she found that acknowledgement of St. Augustine’s civil rights movement did not become widespread until the 2000s.

“I think the city doesn’t talk about it, so it’s not part of the education of St. Augustine’s history for the most part,” she said.

But Michael Butler, Ph.D, thinks the city is changing its attitude towards its civil rights history. The Flagler history professor encouraged McClure to contact the Andrew Young Foundation for her research paper, and helped bring Young to Flagler. Butler said that he was impressed by the large turnout of Flagler students to both Young’s speech at the Gamache and the screening of his film at the auditorium.

“The turnout by students at the discussions and the events demonstrated to (Young) that there’s a lot of hope, a lot of potential in this story being told because there is a desire amongst students to want to learn about this topic,” he said.

Butler said that the Flagler administration had a big role in bringing Young to the college. He said that Flagler President William T. Abare, Jr. risked offending some of Flagler’s closest supporters in the white community, but that “(t)hose hurt feelings are less important than the decision to do the right thing.”

Butler said the Foundation donated to Flagler the materials for the making of the documentary, which he hopes the college will use to build an oral history archive for the civil rights movement in St. Augustine.

Young said the discussion and screening of his film at Flagler helps to fulfill the goals of the civil rights movement. In the film, he said that the residents of St. Augustine and Americans in general need to continue the fight for racial and social equality.

“We came a long way, but the problem that we have today is the same problem that we had back then,” he said. “America and the world need to realize that freedom is a constant struggle and you all made a significant contribution for the freedom of God’s children and for the planet.”

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