"Passage at St. Augustine" to play at Putney

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PUTNEY — The United States' oldest city is often overlooked when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

But Clennon L. King hopes his documentary on St. Augustine, Fla., will spark conversation not just around the history but racism itself.

"I think that we're in a very racially charged America right now and part of that is in thanks to black people forcing the issue of their pain and pushing it front and center," said King. "I applaud that in a huge way."

In Putney, he plans to change the focus of Martin Luther King Day. He said schools tend to play clips from the "I Have a Dream" speech and the whole thing is about black and white kids holding hands in brotherhood.

For him, the speech is more about the fight for civil rights than integration.

"It was about the ability to follow tax dollars to wherever it was spent," said King, mentioning the public parks and beaches black people were not allowed in, and the paving and lighting that allowed restaurants to stay open at night. "It wasn't about a love affair between whites and blacks. It was about black people loving themselves."

The Putney School alum and former television reporter will be screening "Passage at St. Augustine" on Friday at 10 a.m. in the Michael S. Currier Center located at 418 Houghton Brook Road at The Putney School. The bloodiest campaign of the Civil Rights Movement is captured in the film through interviews, news stories and photographs, according to a press release.

More than 44 people were interviewed for the documentary, which focuses on events in St. Augustine happening in the spring and early summer of 1964. News of the violence associated with demonstrations and protests there pushed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Activists, officials, and reporters tell the story with King narrating.

The Putney School invited King to screen an early version of the film titled "Slave Market Diary" back in 2005. He has shown it at a total of 11 different places including a school in St. Augustine the year before, during the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

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"Now, I'm sort of broadening it and returning to give the final product," he said. "I wasn't satisfied with the end product. It sat for a good nine or 10 years."

King currently lives in Boston, but lived in Putney for several years in the 2000s while employed as a member of the development team for The Putney School's Field House capital campaign. His father was a lawyer for Martin Luther King Jr. during the historic Albany, Ga., Movement.

As a reporter in Jacksonville, Fla., King would cover stories in St. Augustine. The distance between the two cities, he said, could be compared to Brattleboro and Greenfield, Mass.

"I was familiar with books and stories I covered for the Civil Rights Movement and the community struggling to preserve landmarks," he said. "The community makes its bread and butter off telling history yet this history is wiped out."

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King had seen a pictorial history with no photographs of black people, "let alone any mention or reference to the Civil Rights Movement that happened," he said.

"Arguably, that's the most important historical event there. Blacks were wiped out from the hard drive of history," King said. "I've got a problem with that."

Also, a teacher had approached him saying her school wanted to "water down" Martin Luther King Day. She had no idea Martin Luther King had been arrested in St. Augustine and jailed in Jacksonville during the movement.

This revelation caused King to think: "If a teacher wasn't aware of this history, how would the children be?"

After 13 years, King set out to finish the film. His brother, a lawyer, introduced him to Mimi Jones. She was a client of their father.

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Jones met with King, holding a manila folder in front her.

"She opened it and my jaw dropped," King said, describing a well-known photograph in which a hotel manager poured acid on black people protesting segregation in St. Augustine. "She was in the pool aghast."

The documentary is "in many respects an American story," said King, who wanted to show racism doesn't start or stop at the city lines of St. Augustine.

"I don't think somehow this community has a disease that's unique to it," he said. "Racism and all of those things are very much a part of this society."

When King returned to St. Augustine to show the film at a school, he was surprised to find more than 50 percent of the black population was gone. He found it ironic as the town was named after a black preacher and African bishop.

"The community pretty much got rid of the black people there," he said. "One could argue they moved or did this or that. A historically black college 'relocated' or were run out of town. They created sort of a black middle class teaching people. Those people are gone. They moved the entire thing to Miami. That's unheard of. In the same year, they started a white school. They were the ones who invited me to screen."

"Passage at St. Augustine" received the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking at the 2015 Roxbury International Film Festival. King has been nominated for an Emmy and won various awards associated with his journalism.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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