By Jared Olson (Photos: Katherine Lewin)
Under the cold bluebird skies of last Monday, January 15th- Martin Luther King Day- St. Augustine demonstrators amassed in front of the squat brick walls of St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, a traditionally black congregation, to celebrate the memory of a civil rights hero in a town where that hero was once notoriously hated.
Congealing along the sidewalk into an amoeba of people whose numbers eventually crested at two hundred, the demonstrators – people black and white as well as young and old – stood shivering under an armada of American flags, held aloft loosely in the soft morning wind, as they waited for the yearly procession to get underway: a route that would take them from the steps of the storied black church, where Dr. King once thundered in indignation against racism, to the downtown market square, where black slaves were once auctioned off like cattle and goats.
But amongst the crowd lay an air of ambiguity surrounding the continuations of King’s legacy. Many people agree that undeniable progress has been made in the decades since King’s death. But others believe that, in light of recent controversies surrounding Confederate Monuments, the economic segregation of St. Augustine, and police brutality, the local divide of race is still a dismal scene to behold.
“America has fallen short of King’s legacy,” Kenneth Jones, a well-dressed, articulate black entrepreneur from the St. John’s county area, tells me. “America’s got a lot of growing to do. Racism still happens a lot in silence today. The discrimination of today is covert discrimination.”
Many demonstrators on the white side of the racial divide similarly concurred. Ron Davis, who has lived in the North Florida for the majority of time on Earth, believes that though definite change has occurred since his early years of his childhood, in Jim Crow south, Florida, and America as a whole, have not advanced as far as they should have:
“Everything’s changing – it’s still a journey, and we haven’t come as far as we could have. I remember when there was racism when I was a kid in Daytona Beach, when it was still officially segregated. The local Dairy Queen had a segregated water fountain. And I remember how, in 1971, when I went to a restaurant in Flagler Beach with my black coworker, they shut down the restaurant and refused to serve us. That was after the civil rights movement had happened.”
“Not too much has changed here.” George Carlton told me, his feeble voice barely audible over the noise of the crowd. “It’s changed a little, but not much.” Carlton, a gnarled, aging black man bundled in a scarf and wearing a hat that read USS Fitzgerald, 1962, has lived in St. Augustine since he was born here in the 1930’s.
Asides from the controversial movement to remove and recontextualize the Confederate Monuments in park square, many have remained sharply critical of the towns de facto economic segregation, which through urban gentrification and the crack epidemic of the 1980’s resulted in the majority of the local black population being shoved into the hinterlands of the West King street neighborhood, across from US 1 and far from their former abode in Lincolnville, close to downtown.
“When you go downtown, what do you see?” one demonstrator, Carolyn Wolf, asks me. “Do you see a lot of interaction with are black community? Are they there? Are they welcome downtown? No.”
Half a century following King’s battle in St. Augustine, Wolf explained, the full manifestation of social justice and racial equality once envisioned by the civil rights leader has still not arrived.
“People will still be so blatant to say something to me based on the color of my skin.” Cody Tucker, a black St. John’s county resident who’d brought his daughters out to demonstration that day, told me. “They don’t know who I am. We always experience some kind of discrimination… people following you in stores. Police stopping you for no reason… You try not to make it affect you, you try not to be scared. But it does affect you, obviously.”
I asked him if St. Augustine and America as a whole has fully fulfilled Dr. King’s legacy:
“No. Not even close. Is (the racial divide) better than when he was alive? Most definitely. You take steps forward, you take steps backward… MLK’s vision was not about just black people- it was just people. People coming together. Once we get people together, then his true vision will be there.”
The procession of marchers, turning town King Street and passing Flagler College- the entire ceremonial route coincidentally follows the two local streets named after the black leader- passes the most physically prominent of the Confederate Monuments in town, a towering stone obelisk engraved with the image of a rebel flag and the name of a southern general. Seen from the street, the tall stone sculpture- erected by the “Daughters of the Confederacy” group in the 1920’s- has a ghostly, ominous, almost sepulchral look to it, standing like a weathered gravestone amidst the softly latticed, green shade of the southern oaks.
The movement to remove and recontextualize the monument – and the vicious backlash this suddenly provoked – has become a flash point of the local racial tensions that, according to many, have been simmering beneath the town’s seeming veil of normality for the past several decades.
Though not all was negative on this day of remembrance. As much as it was a condemnation of the entrenched racism that still exists, for many people, it was a celebration of a man and a movement that won great battles in fighting for the rights of an oppressed people. And for this reason, the movement carries tremendous symbolic meaning.
“We’re here today because MLK has a tremendous impact on us, both as black Americans, and as women,” Nakiya Binder, a member of the Alpa Kappa Alpha sorority, told me that morning as the march was getting under way. “Not only was he (important to fighting for civil rights), but his wife Coretta was a member of our same sorority. So in that way, we are all sisters.”
The marchers, having come full circle and settled around the elevated rotunda in the downtown parks central square, listen to a jazz band for several minutes before listening to a speech by a local black minister.
“We’ve come a long ways,” one black woman, who has lived in St. Augustine the majority of her life, told me. “But it’s not enough.”
As the local minister- a la Martin Luther King- dives into his sermon, a pained, impassioned speech over the need for moral integrity and the continuing pursuit of justice, the crowd becomes quiet, furtive, almost rapt in astonishment over the power of the speakers words.
Just like the Confederate Monument erected in the Central Park, the memory of the civil giant who once walked these streets- who was attacked by dogs, imprisoned here- towers over the town of St. Augustine.
“He was more than just an advocate for blacks,” the black entrepreneur, Kenneth Jones, tells me. “He fought for all of us. This holiday is to memorialize a man who changed the landscape of America.”