Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Sense of Place I: Civil Rights Museum, National Park and Seashore Coming to St. Augustine, Florida

DARON DEAN/St. Augustine Record

I am prouder than ever to live in St. Augustine, Florida, which now has a Civil Rights Foot Soldiers Monument, will soon have a memorial to Rev. Andrew Young, and will in the next few years have a National Civil Rights Museum, which will become a part of the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore.

Retired University of Florida Professor Ari Lamme writes in his 1989 book, America’s Historic Landscapes, that “human beings have an emotional need to establish an emotional relationship with landscapes,” citing J.B. Jackson.

Lamme writes:

Why has St. Augustine failed to develop appropriately as a historic site? Leaders from all interested constituencies – government at different levels, preservation experts, plus local citizens and business people – were unable to agree on a workable historic landscape compromise. Immediate return on commercial investment seemed more attractive than projected return on more consistent historic landscape interpretation.

….. There is some reason to hope for improvement. Some have claimed that St. Augustine failed to develop a better interpretive program in the past because this was not an Anglo-Ameircan historic townscape. Today a sizeable and growing Hispanic population in the United States, and particularly in South Florida, may rightly demand that this place, with its important vestiges of Spanish colonial heritage, be something more than an above-average tourist trap. There are, after all rights for all Americans to experience authentic, historic landscapes associated with their heritage. Political pressure in the future should promote the continued improvement in St. Augustine’s landscape.

May 14, 2011 (Saturday afternoon and early evening) began an epic time of healing for the City of St. Augustine, with the first of two civil rights monuments dedicated in our Slave Market Square.

An evocative monument to the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers now stands where angry mobs of bigots cheered KKK and John Birch Society thugs preaching hate against African-Americans.

“Never again,” promised St. Augustine Mayor Joseph Boles, who eloquently apologized for every single violation of human rights by every Mayor of St. Augustine, past, present and future. Mayor Boles spoke of healing and harmony, and about how St. Augustine’s National Civil Rights Museum will accurately retell our history, so that it will never be repeated, and so that everyone will know what courage was shown here and what civil rights victories were one because of the struggles here in 1963-64 .

Our City of St. Augustine was named in 1565 by the Spanish after St. Augustine of Hippo, who is sometimes erroneously referred to as “one of the three founders of the Roman Catholic Church” by licensed tour guides employed by one of the trolley trains in St. Augustine (not the classy one, but the other company).

The irony of Saint Augustine of Hippo himself being a North African man and his City (first European settlement in America) becoming what Dr. King called “the most lawless” city in America was recalled.

Speakers recalled with great eloquence were all the illegal state actions by city, county and state officials (including sheriffs and judges), including all of the illegal arrests, illegal jailings and illegal imprisonments and resulting illegal criminal records. Those criminal records were only recently expunged through the admirable efforts of State Senator Tony Hill and Governor Charles Crist.

Speakers also recounted the actions of racists tolerated by state actors -- including KKK-dominated City of St. Augustine, St. Johns County Sheriff's Department and local courts at the time. Those violent and vile actions including all of the beatings, brickbats, shootings, death threats, attempted immolation, intimidation, blacklisting in response to peaceful picketing and non-violent persuasion, aimed at ending “Jim Crow” laws, which resulted in the daily humiliation of St. Augustine’s African-American residents being forbidden to go to church, buy groceries, eat in a restaurant or go swimming with “white” people” in the ocean (yes, the ocean was segregated too). These harsh “Jim Crow” rules were enforced on pain of harsh incarceration under unjust criminal laws adopted by Florida’s legislature.

“An unjust law is no law at all,” as St. Augustine himself wrote. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s lawyers, strategists and funders worked for decades to undo these unjust laws, ultimately aided by President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the Justice Department and President Lyndon Johnson.

Nowhere were unjust laws enforced with such a vengeance as in St. Augustine, Florida which led Dr. King to call it “the most lawless” city in America. This is where courageous civil rights “foot soldiers” marched into the face of their oppressors and shared the love that led Jim Crow to crumble, under the television cameras, which never blinked, showing acid poured into a swimming pool where African-Americans were swimming, people beaten for swimming in the segregated ocean at St. Augustine Beach,

St. Augustine City Commissioner Errol Jones vividly recalled growing up under Jim Crow segregation and the days of 1963-1964, when there were nightly civil rights marches to the Slave Market Square.

The keynote speaker was former St. Augustine resident Hank Thomas, one of the first thirteen freedom riders, who eloquently described Jim Crow and his role in overcoming it. Thomas spoke eloquently to his mother, who prayed for him as he was in a Greyhound bus torched by racists near Anniston, Alabama, recounting how he feared death and was ready to die of smoke inhalation as the bus was in flames – only the gas tank exploding chased away the angry mob that was ready to kill.

Thomas spoke of unity, about how African-Americans were assisted by large numbers of white people, particularly Jewish college students and other supporters. Thomas noted how two of the three civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi were Jewish, and how of the first thirteen freedom riders, seven were white and four were Jewish.

Thomas spoke of universal brotherhood and about how and other African-Americans fought in wars to secure others’ freedom even when their freedom was not secured. Thomas said that if he were nineteen in 1865 or 1917 or 1941 he would have fought for his country, just as he fought in Vietnam; he also said if he were nineteen in 1948, he would have fought for Israeli independence.

Thomas mentioned the election of President Barack Obama as the inevitable result of the struggles for equal rights seen here in the City of St. Augustine.

The singing of several beautiful songs was led by Carolyn Fisher and Carrie Johnson.

Other eloquent speakers included County Commission Chairman J. Kenneth Bryan, former Mayor George Gardner and Council on Aging Executive Director Cathy Brown. The idea of the monument took root at the Council on Aging and organizational meetings were held there.

Barbara Vickers, a leader in the civil rights movement then and now, who spearheaded the drive to raise $70,000 for the monument, spoke eloquently and briefly, saying succinctly she was ready after years of work for this day that she was ready for a beer.

Historian David Nolan told the history of slave-selling in the Slave Market Square (absurdly denied by former City Attorney Geoffrey Dobson in a notorious St. Augustine Record column). David Nolan’s history gave details of slave-selling in the slave market, eliciting laughter at the local equivalent of Holocaust deniers, who would deny that any slave-selling ever occurred in the market (whose historic signage is most noted for pointing out how America’s first system of weights and measures was created their during Spanish colonial rule).

“It takes a village” to make something as wonderful as the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers Monument to take place. Indeed, as playwright Tony Kushner’s words, in Angels in America, “only in politics does the miraculous occur.”

In December 2005, some 75 people turned up at the St. Augustine City Commission to request permission to put a monument in the square. The City staff had told the 40th Accord civil rights group that there would never be a civil rights monument there, and that such monuments were limited to colonial history (even though there are memorials to Confederate and later soldiers).

City Commissioners righteously overruled our misguided, then-City Manager William B. Harriss, allowing construction of the monument in the Slave Market Square (but adopting Harriss’ crabbed and crabby requirement that there be public fundraising for the monument, and no city funds).

In the end, under new management (City Manager John Regan) our City of St. Augustine did pay for construction of the sculpture’s base. Our City hosted a fine celebration, a day of healing in St. Augustine, Florida – a long time coming, and something of which we are all justly proud as Americans and St. Augustinians.

Other major donors and fundraisers included Nena Vreeland, Barbara Allen and Phil McDaniel, who helped bring about the full funding required for sculptor Brian Owens to take his inspiration into metallic reality.

The monument shows four heroic busts of civil rights workers, three African-Americans and one white college student, against a bas relief background of civil rights marchers and the Slave Market Square.

As Ronald Reagan would say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

I reckon that St. Augustine will soon be the center of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There will be a large, world-class Civil Rights Museum here, telling the arc of our story, including the first slaves brought to what is now the United States of America (on September 8, 1565, the day St. Augustine was founded); the establishment of the first free black settlement in America (1740 at Fort Mose); hundreds of Menorcan indentured servants heroic trek from New Smyrna Beach, voting with their feet in 1777; the end of slavery; Jim Crow segregation and the end of Jim Crow segregation, brought about when President Lyndon B. Johnson broke a Senate filibuster based upon what happened here in St. Augustine, brought to us by the courageous people of St. Augustine (inspired by what the KKK and its sympathizers still call “outside agitators,” e.g., Nobel Prize laureate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Andrew Young and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy).

We have every right to expect that the St. Augustine Civil Rights Museum will eventually become a part of the St. Augustine National Historical Park, National Seashore and Scenic Coastal Parkway. http://www.staugustgreen.com/

“Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in,” to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost.

For centuries, St. Augustine treated African-Americans unjustly here in their own homes, despite that African-Americans were here on the first day our City was founded (September 8, 1565).

European colonial powers and successive American territorial and Florida state governments were guilty of first enslaving African-Americans with chattel slavery, then writing “unjust laws” to perpetuate slavery (as St. Augustine would call them).

The Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution ended chattel slavery (as well as indentured servitude, of which the Menorcan people were victims, voting with their feet and fleeing to the City of St. Augustine).

White people then enslaved After passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, African-American people again with yet another web of “unjust laws,” Jim Crow segregation. In many ways, Saturday was a homecoming for St. Augustine’s African-American people, who are finally being treated as first-class citizens by the government of the City of St. Augustine.

African-American people here helped to change the law to where they are now welcome here in their own home, St. Augustine, Florida where once they were banned from housing, public accommodations and employment by an evil set of written laws written by the Florida legislature (Jim Crow segregation). In Jim Crow Guide to the USA, a book that first published in France by Jean Paul Sartre, the scope and methods of Jim Crow segregation were well documented by our local civil rights hero, author Stetson Kennedy, 94, who proudly watched along with his wife, Sandra Parks. Kennedy was arrested here in 1952 when he was running on an anti-segregationist ticket for United States Senator.

Were it not for the struggles here, women, other minorities and Gay and Lesbian people would not have equal rights in this country. The 1964 Civil Rights Act protects not only African-Americans, but also prohibits discrimination against women and against other ethnic minorities and also outlaws discrimination on the basis of their religion or irreligion. Inspired by the Civil Rights laws, Gay activists have won victories from sea to shining sea. It all started here, in St. Augustine, Florida.

As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Now there is a fitting permanent monument in the civil rights foot soldiers’ honor – respecting African-Americans at last here in their home of St. Augustine, Florida. When the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers Monument dedication was over, we all joined hands and sang, “We Shall Overcome.”

And we have!

Meanwhile, racists from the “League of the South” (a hate group listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center) published a screed in local right-wingers’ deceptively named website, Historic City News, on December 30, 2010, urging that Florida secede from the Union, while defending slavery as good for African-American people. That hate speech was published by none other than failed City Commission candidate MICHAEL GOLD f/k/a “MICHAEL TOBIN,” who operates racist, homophobic websites (shamefulpeople.com and plazabum.com).

GOLD was at the event on Saturday, writing a trite story with his own name in the lede, here – GOLD was often glowering during the dedication, for hours using a large long lens to take photos of everyone and everything, posting some of the photos on his Historic City News hate website, which recently printed his hate speech directed against Andrew Young’s monument. Yes, GOLD wrote another hate screed lambasting the City (and Rev. Andrew Young) over the Andrew Young memorial, mocking and trivializing the history and the courage of Rev. Young and the other people who struggled (and bled) to secure our civil rights here.

Pray for the soul of MICHAEL GOLD -- as Adlai Stevenson once said (upon being spat upon by a Dallas mob in October 1963), "I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance."

Our City of St. Augustine will dedicate the Andrew Young monument on June 11, 2011 – the healing power is enormous and well worth the miniscule cost ($5000) which is de micromis (a microscopic amount, much smaller than “de minimis”).

The Gospel of Matthew says, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

As it says in Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

This is our City of St. Augustine’s (and our Nation’s) “time to heal,” starting with the National Civil Rights Museum and St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore. http://www.staugustgreen.com/

Racists once said African-Americans and liberals "did not know their place." This is our place and our time and our town, and we're going to reconcile diverse people for the betterment of everyone, working toward John Winthrop's goal of America as "a shining city on a hill."

What do y'all reckon?

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