For most people, a grocery store is just where people go to pick up some food. With winding aisles stocked with produce, snacks and drinks, the last thing one would expect to find is the inspiration for a documentary. That wasn’t the case for Clennon King.
“I was in a grocery store one day, and there was a black woman who walked up to me and recognized me from television,” King explained. He spent time as a reporter for an NBC affiliate in Jacksonville, Fla., roughly 30 minutes north of St. Augustine. “And she said, ‘Mr. King, Mr. King, you’ve got to do a story.’”
The woman was a teacher at a high school. She explained to King that the school was “watering down” Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and cited it as “Diversity Day.”
“Their argument basically was that Dr. King really didn’t play a role in Florida, or anything like that,” King said. “So my point to you is, I said to her, ‘Did you know he went to jail here?’ and she said ‘He did?’”
King was shocked to see that a school teacher was unaware of the history that surrounded Martin Luther King’s time in Florida. He believed that if she didn’t know, the children wouldn’t know either, and one of the most important battles during the civil rights movement would remain unknown to the inhabitants of the state in which it took place. This is what prompted the creation of Passage at St. Augustine, set to be screened tonight.
King described the incidents in St. Augustine as “the bloodiest battle of the Civil Rights movement that no one knows about” and rightfully so. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington, certain moments from the Civil Rights movement receive a fair amount of spotlight.
The events at St. Augustine do not.
The city of St. Augustine was a hotbed of racial turmoil in the 1960s. The city itself was one-fourth black, and there were ongoing battles between both the citizens of St. Augustine and the police. The most famous moment from the entire battle took place on June 11, 1964: Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested on the steps of the Monson Motor Lodge restaurant for trying to order food from a white-only establishment.
“This was a very, very pivotal campaign,” King explained. “I think most audiences leave thinking ‘Why is it that we don’t know about this?’. It’s clear that it’s been wiped from history. I think that’s a part of the whole conversation about race and race relations.”
King, who is based out of Boston, is the son of a lawyer who represented Dr. Martin Luther King. King screened an earlier version of his film back in 2004 for a St. Augustine non-profit, but he was far from pleased with the results. Thus began his mission to craft an improved documentary.
King’s journey in making this film was not exactly a straight-forward line. It was written, filmed and edited over a course of more than 10 years. He explained that there were several ‘stops and starts’, from his son moving to Vermont, followed by his own relocation to Vermont two years later. He spent time traveling all over the country for work – he simply didn’t have time to be cutting a film.
“It took me more than decade to really sit down and dig in,” King said. “My life had slowed down enough. My children had grown, and my life had slowed down enough so I could really get into this thing. I think the hardest part was really sitting down and believing in the project.”
King added that his girlfriend was incredibly important to the process of creating the film. He would cut five minutes of the film at a time and get her opinion.
“Her response was always the same: ‘And then what happened?” King explained. “And then within six weeks, I was done.”
But as King finally began to dig into the teeth of his decade-long project, he realized what made his documentary so different, and more profound than the many films on Civil Rights that came before his: he covered the story from both sides.
“You’re going to see everything from 360 degrees,” King said. “Hopefully what I do in the end is I allow those voices to emerge and let the audience come to their own conclusions. There are going to be voices you hear that disagree with other voices.”
From civil rights leaders and to white newsmen and people affiliated with the Klu Klux Klan, Passage at St. Augustine doesn’t shy away from having a multitude of perspectives brought to the table.
“You get one side saying ‘the wall is red’ and you have another side saying ‘the wall is blue’,” King explained. “So it forces you as the viewer to take a position. Most films do that. Most films pretty much hand feed you. I never wanted it to be said that this is a sort of slanted, slam dunk civil rights documentary.”
The screening is slated for 6 p.m. on Feb. 4 in the Cleveland E. and Phyllis B. Dodge room in the Flynn Campus Union. A panel discussion featuring King, communications professor and Marty Dobrow and civil rights veteran Mimi Jones will follow the screening.