Sections

8.1.17

The Armor They Wore

On August 15, the award-winning documentary Passage at St. Augustine will be shown at the Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs. More than fifty years after the long civil rights campaign in the Florida city, some of the Vineyarders who are veterans of it and other civil rights victories of the era will be there to celebrate and remember.

Mimi Jones today and in 1964, when she swam in a segregated pool into which the motel owner poured acid.
Clennon L. King

When I first “discovered” Martha’s Vineyard for The New York Times, it was several years after the Deep South victories of the civil rights movement, including in St. Augustine, Florida, in the summer of 1964. The Island had been a place where both national leaders and foot soldiers had found respite during the years when those victories were hard fought and often punishing. Even in the early ’70s, when I talked with many of them for the story I was writing, the struggle continued back where many had come from, both in the South and into places along the East Coast.

Like today, the Vineyard was a place where people committed to freedom, justice, and equality could find not only relief but like-minded people. And so it is a part of my own ongoing journey along that road that so many have taken to lead a discussion following Passage at St. Augustine, Clennon L. King’s much-needed documentary about how a local uprising turned into an all-out campaign that helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And also to share some of the things that I believe enabled the victory in St. Augustine that remain eternally relevant both here on the Vineyard and around the world. The film will be shown at the Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs on August 15.

When I was growing up in the late 1940s, despite laws that put limits on my existence, I had an almost idyllic childhood, especially summers in places like St. Augustine. Every year, my mother used to send me there and other places in Florida to spend time with my grandparents. My grandfather, C.S.H. Hunter Sr. was a presiding elder – that is, a teaching preacher – in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest denomination started by and serving African Americans. And my grandmother, Alberta – well, she was the saint of the household.

Between the two of them and their congregation, friends, and neighbors, I was protected and privileged within the confines of our segregated society. During those years, I don’t recall hearing any discussions of the evils of segregation. In fact, along with my grandparents, those adults who embraced me as one of their own filled me with stories from the Bible that affirmed me and my worth. In retrospect, I think those Sundays listening to the Word my grandfather and others like him preached may have given them the strength to “keep on keepin’ on” the following week when many of them went to work for The Man in one job or another. It was a strength that would one day spring fully armed as they confronted and defeated the system designed to keep them in their place – a place of subservience and inferiority.

The Word came from a man who was independent of the white man as he was paid from the collections taken up during church services – usually more than one on a Sunday. And that allowed him to deal with whites, if not on legally equal footing, then with more dignity than if he had to rely on them for a living. He could and did carry himself in a way that generated respect from blacks as well as whites. Those lessons created the armor we wore – I at the University of Georgia, where I helped tear down the wall of segregation, and those in St. Augustine who would later challenge the separate and unequal system there, at great risk to themselves.

One of my grandfather’s favorite sermons was “Dry Bones,” taken from the Old Testament when the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness and the prophet Ezekiel is taken to a valley full of bones and instructed by God to revive them through prophesy. As I wrote of my grandfather’s words in my book In My Place, my grandfather’s message was that no matter how low or far down a person got, he could always rise up. Like the dry bones. And he would then talk about how that happened: how the bones would begin to click, and he would begin to sing the old black spiritual that was adapted from the Scriptures: “Ankle bone connected to de leg bone...leg bone connected to de knee bone,” and on and on until the whole body was back together and Pop would shout, “Now hear the word of the Lord.”

My grandmother was a lot quieter, but again, she was the saint of the family and to that end fasted and prayed and made me learn a Bible verse every day. In those years, I didn’t much appreciate being called in from my wanderings around the leafy- green area between the church and the parsonage, which I thought of as my own little jungle, similar to the Tarzan movies we used to watch in our segregated movie theater back home in Covington, Georgia. But the message from her favorite psalm took up residence in my young mind and only surfaced years later when white students opposed to my recent entry into what they thought of as their exclusive space demonstrated and threw rocks at my dormitory window.

When the dean came to tell me I was being suspended “for my own safety,” I had no idea whose side he was on and what awaited me out in that dark night. But as I walked out into it, the words my grandmother insisted I learn came rushing back as my armor: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...all the days of my life” – especially then when I could still smell the tear gas that had been used, albeit belatedly, to disperse the angry mob.

I have no doubt that whether it was in the churches like my grandfather’s, or in the teachings of saints like my grandmother, or in the enduring refrains of freedom sung or spoken by those brought to these shores in chains, when the time came, wearing the armor of our history, black people and others who were not black but who understood and sympathized rose up and challenged the system that had tried and succeeded for so long to keep them in their physical place. 

And while St. Augustine was the scene of what has been referred to as “the bloodiest of the civil rights” struggles, wearing that armor, people like Esther Burgess, the mother of the Vineyard’s own Julia Burgess, traveled there from Boston to join the protests and walked and nonviolently protested and never got weary. Some, like Esther Burgess, were arrested. Others were victims of violence, like Mimi Jones, another woman with Vineyard connections, who dared to swim in a whites-only pool; the motel’s owner responded by pouring acid into the water.

Wearing that armor, together they and others eventually ended the lie of separate but equal. Those lessons endure and have become necessary again in many places, as the pastors and saints could recall from Esther 4:14, “for such a time as this.”