Monday, July 20, 2020

David Nolan: On our losses... (SAR)

St. Augustine is remembering civil rights patriots John Lewis, C.T. Vivian (nearly drowned by KKK at 1964 St. Augustine Beach wade-ins), JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer, one of the St. Augustine Four, and a veteran of the St. Augustine Movement.

One omission from the article: it was St. Augustine Judge CHARLES MATHIS who ordered four children cruelly incarcerated for six months picketing when Woolworth's would not serve them with hamburgers and Cokes.  Segregationist Judge CHARLES MATHIS' son, ROBERT KEITH MATHIS, was later a judge and a prosecutor. CHARLES MATHIS expressed bitter, threatening online opinions about people concerned about Sheriff DAVID SHOAE's coverups and Fourth Amendment violations.  I outed him on this blog when the Record abolished anonymous commenting, revealing Judge ROBERT KEITH MATHIS' hatred of anyone questioning the actions or authority of Sheriff DAVID SHOAR, including the Michelle O'Connell coverup (claiming on Easter morning there was no federal jurisdiction) and the Genussa v. Shoar case, where four federal judges found Sheriff SHOAR violated attorney-client privacy at SJSO.

Here's the eloquent 1540 word essay by St. Augustine civil rights historian David Nolan, which graces the editorial page of the St. Augustine Record today:

2010 photo of Rep. John Lewis with young Gabrielle Duncan and Dalonja Duncan at the Casa Monica Hotel. In the back are former St. Johns County School Superintendent Otis Mason and his wife, Myrtis Mason.  [Photo courtesy of Gwendolyn Duncan)

David Nolan: On our losses.
By David Nolan
Posted at 3:19 PM, 7/19/20
St. Augustine Record
July 20, 2020

In a stretch of less than a month, we have lost three significant figures of the civil rights movement whose courage and actions changed America for the better.

They all lived long enough to see a new generation of protesters whose actions have spread into all corners of the land.

They were “The Conscience of Congress,” Rep. John Lewis; “America’s Greatest Preacher” (by the estimation of Martin Luther King), Rev. C.T. Vivian; and the next-to-last survivor of the St. Augustine Four, JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer.

Because we usually have an oversupply of villains, those on the other side of the moral scale help give us a usable past that inspires rather than discourages. Thus do we pay tribute to these three. St. Augustine is part of their story, just as they will always be connected with the Ancient City.

JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer was one of the ultimate “Foot Soldiers” of the movement. In July 1963, a group of young teens went to the Woolworth’s store on the Plaza. Previously they had just picketed outside, but this time they had been given some money by Washington Street barber Ernest Wells so they could go inside and order a hamburger and a Coke. They did this, were refused service and wound up spending the next six months in jail and reform school in a tricky legal attempt to put them “under the jail” to break their spirit and that of the movement.

Soon the nation learned of them as the St. Augustine Four. Newspaper editorials from Miami to New York condemned the teenagers’ treatment. Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King protested. When Florida got ready to open its pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, there were threats to picket it if they were still incarcerated. It took a special meeting of the governor and cabinet in January 1964 to release them, undoing the “brilliant” legal stratagem that had kept lawyers from appealing their case to less biased courts.

King came to St. Augustine in May of 1964 and wanted to meet JoeAnn and her fellow sufferers. He hailed them as “my warriors,” and told them they had served above and beyond the call of duty.

When Robinson spoke the next month at St. Paul A.M.E. Church, he invited JoeAnn and fellow activist Audrey Nell Edwards to come to the Robinson family home in Connecticut to recuperate. He wound up taking them to the New York World’s Fair!

JoeAnn took pride in the fact that as soon as she was released, she went right back to marching and picketing. She refused to let her spirit be broken. There was one tell-tale sign, however. As she raised a family, she would not let her children grow up in St. Augustine. For many decades, she commuted here every day to her job at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, but she lived in Jacksonville until her death on June 30 at the age of 73.

It was appropriate that when she retired, her co-workers at the school took up a collection and donated nearly $1,000 in JoeAnn’s name for the monument in the Plaza honoring the Foot Soldiers of the civil rights movement. Audrey Nell Edwards is now the last survivor of the St. Augustine Four. As articles and books are written about them, and their memories preserved by the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, she is the keeper of the flame.

The two young men of the St. Augustine Four, Willie Carl Singleton and Samuel White, both passed away before their time. They had been sent to the notorious Arthur Dozier School in Marianna — and always refused to talk about their experiences.

A second loss was of Rev. C. T. Vivian, one of the Old Lions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization founded and led by King in the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s.

Vivian was a true veteran, having taken part in his first lunch counter sit-in back in 1947 in Peoria, Illinois. He was active in the Nashville movement of 1960, which produced so many civil rights activists, including Dr. Robert Hayling, who soon became the leader of the movement in St. Augustine. In 1964, the two would meet again, in Orlando, when Hayling led a delegation with Henry Twine, Rev. Roscoe Halyard and others to try to convince SCLC to focus its attention on the Ancient City. Vivian was the man they talked to.

Soon there was an influx of prominent people to St. Augustine, like Mrs. Peabody, the mother of the governor of Massachusetts, whose arrest here was front page news around the nation. On May 18, King made his first appearance here. Vivian came and stayed. He led marches downtown, and one memorable June day he and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (for whom the Birmingham Airport is now named) led a wade-in at St. Augustine Beach. Neither were swimmers, so the plan was just to go in ankle or knee deep, to make a point, then pivot back toward dry land. Something went awry, and soon Vivian’s head was being held under water and he said to himself, “This is it. This is it.” Fortunately, he survived.

The next year, in Selma, Alabama — preserved in some of the iconic film footage of the era — Vivian led a group to the court house to register to vote and was met by the notorious Sheriff Jim Clark, who punched him in the face. Clark later went to prison, not for that, but for large-scale drug smuggling.

When Vivian returned to St. Augustine in 2004 for a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the movement here, he noted with regret that he had tried to buy a beach lot here, years before, but had been unable to keep up the payments. However, he had one of the nation’s leading collections of Black heritage books (including one autographed by the poet Phillis Wheatley, who died in 1784) — and he was pleased to add to it a copy of the biography of Frank Butler, Lincolnville businessman and developer of Butler Beach on Anastasia Island.

In 2008 Vivian returned to speak at ACCORD’s annual Freedom Trail Luncheon, reminiscing about his involvement with the movement here. He toured the Freedom Trail (which he pronounced a national treasure) and helped unveil a marker at the home of 104-year-old Rena Ayers on DeHaven Street. He said that his grandson was asking him, “What did you really do in the civil rights movement?” Photographs were sent to him of several Freedom Trail markers on which he was mentioned, and he called back to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Also on July 17, one of Vivian’s former students from Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary passed away in Atlanta. John Lewis was 80. He had become one of the senior members of Congress, though he will always be best remembered as a civil rights icon. His first civil rights action was to go to the public library to get a card, and being turned away because of the color of his skin. Perhaps in response, he became an avid reader, and said one of his greatest treasures was a book autographed by King that he found in a flea market for a dollar. In his later years, he worked on a trilogy of graphic novels about the civil rights movement and won a National Book Award.

These were some of the stories John Lewis told when he came to speak at the ACCORD Freedom Trail Luncheon in 2010. Because Congress was still in session, and there was an important vote to be taken, he was kept in Washington to the very last moment, and there was some question whether it would be possible to get him from the airport to the program in time. Finally, Purcell Conway, who had been a young civil rights activist here in 1964, then went on to a career as a New York policeman before retiring back to Florida, said: “I’ll drive, and I’ll get him there.” And he did — though the speed of the journey has not yet been entered into the record of history.

Lewis was introduced by his old friend and co-worker Alvin Brown, who within a year would become the first Black mayor of Jacksonville. He was particularly delighted to meet Tiny Heggs, the mother of his old friend from the Freedom Rides, Henry Thomas. She still lives in St. Augustine today, one of our community elders.

Carrie Johnson, the beloved “Voice of Lincolnville,” always said that people should be given their flowers while they are still here to smell and enjoy them. We are indebted to ACCORD for doing that by honoring local civil rights heroes and sheroes like JoeAnn Anderson Ulmer and bringing here people like Vivian and Lewis to celebrate their work.

As time goes on and inevitably leaves fewer and fewer participants from those dramatic episodes of six decades ago, we should make sure we do not leave out thanks for any, nor fail to record their stories and preserve their documents. The future will expect no less of us.

David Nolan is a local historian.

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