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Uncovering History, Healing St. Augustine

Aug 11, 2011
by Carrie Pack Chowske, '00

Senior Jillian McClure’s love of civil rights history leads to activist Andrew Young’s visit to Flagler

Sometimes roadblocks turn out to be open doors.

That’s what happened to history major Jillian McClure when she wanted to register for a religion class her sophomore year. When that class was full, she picked “Civil Rights Movement” with Dr. Michael Butler, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This past semester, McClure, 20, helped bring one of the country’s best-known Civil Rights activists — Ambassador Andrew Young, a former associate of Martin Luther King Jr. — to Flagler College, where he showed a new documentary about the civil rights struggles in St. Augustine. After that visit, Young decided to host the archives for the film and other important historical material at Flagler.

McClure plans to study southern culture and race relations in graduate school. But that wasn’t always the case; she discovered her passion for civil rights history almost by accident.

While in high school, she saw Flagler alumnus Jeremy Dean’s documentary “Dare Not Walk Alone,” which piqued her interest in the Civil Rights movement. It would be several years before she really began to truly understand the historical significance of St. Augustine during the Civil Rights Movement.

“I was just really amazed at what had happened here,” she said. “The colonial aspects of St. Augustine are talked about so much, and yet, there’s so much history of St. Augustine that happened in the 20th century that no one knows about.”

It was her first taste of St. Augustine’s civil rights history.

During her sophomore year at Flagler, McClure, now a senior, was just beginning to take classes for her history major, and she wanted to take a class because she liked a particular professor. When she discovered the class was full, she decided to enroll in Butler’s class on civil rights. The second-choice class turned out to be her favorite at Flagler. She had found her passion.

“I wasn’t ever intending to pursue it [race relations] … I just loved the class,” she said. And now she says, “I love this; this is what I want to do.”

Since then, McClure has been studying everything she can about southern culture and race relations. She says she loves interviewing people about their experiences even though it can be a bit nerve-wracking.

“It’s really wonderful to have so many resources here because I can study what I want to study and access it down the street from Flagler College and interview people who live in my home town,” she said. “And it’s really exciting at the same time because there is so much of it that’s been hushed and so much of it that isn’t exposed, so it’s really fun to discover new information.”

Perhaps it was the “hush” that masked the importance of an event mentioned in “Dare Not Walk Alone.” Dean had found footage of one of the turning points in Civil Rights in St. Augustine: a 1964 beating of Young, a friend and supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. who later became mayor of Atlanta and a United Nations Ambassador.

King had sent Young to disband increasingly violent protests in the Oldest City, but when Young saw the situation in St. Augustine, he decided to march alongside local residents — an event that would be a turning point in the movement nationwide. As Young attempted to cross a St. Augustine street while leading a peaceful march, he was brutally attacked and beaten unconscious. Young was arrested and didn’t even know the beating was taped until 2005 when he saw “Dare Not Walk Alone.” When he viewed the footage, he knew he needed to tell his story in his own words with his own documentary.

Young was a key strategist and negotiator during the civil rights campaigns in Birmingham and Selma that resulted in the passage Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But many believe it was that historic street crossing in St. Augustine, which McClure and many other local residents had never even heard of, that served as the catalyst for the passage of the historic legislation.

“Andrew Young was never a name that really stuck with me,” McClure said. “Martin Luther King was the one who was talked about coming here all the time. I just never realized how important his [Young’s] role was in the Civil Rights Movement here until I was getting in to my research last semester.”

McClure was researching local demonstrators for a paper and Young’s name came up. She discovered that he was one of the few key figures still alive, and he was living relatively nearby in Atlanta. She decided to send him an e-mail and tell him about her project.

The immediate and enthusiastic response was overwhelming. Not only was he willing to answer her questions, but Young’s foundation also wanted to host an exclusive screening of their documentary, “Crossing in St. Augustine,” in the city where it had all happened. McClure was elated.

“I’m really excited for the doors this could open,” McClure said last February in an interview prior to the screening.

On Feb. 9, 2010, Young showed his documentary to a standing-room-only crowd in the Flagler College Auditorium. It was a historic event, not only for the prestige of having a former UN ambassador and mayor of Atlanta visit St. Augustine, but also because of the symbolism of Young being welcomed back with open arms to the city that had shunned him so many years ago.

“Freedom is a constant struggle,” Young told the audience after the film. “And you all made a significant contribution.”

McClure said she was in awe of the civil rights pioneers in attendance and found it odd that they were thanking her for bringing the documentary to St. Augustine.

“It was really incredible to know that I was meeting these people who had participated in the civil rights movement and had done so much to bring about the Civil Rights Act and equality in America,” she said. “I was just so incredibly grateful for what they had done. People were thanking me, and I was just saying, ‘No, thank you,’ because I’m just so appreciative of what they’ve done for everyone.”

McClure says she was grateful just for the opportunity to speak with Young. She didn’t expect anything more.

“I initiated the contact with him, but I was not expecting to play any kind of role,” she said. “[But] then getting to do a radio interview and a television interview and all of the stuff it was just really … exciting. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, except maybe some sleep.“

She makes light of her role, but it’s hard to ignore McClure’s contribution to the legacy of Young’s historic 1964 visit. The interviews and other material used in the film will be given to the college for the creation of a civil rights archive chronicling the local struggle — clear evidence of McClure’s influence.

Butler, whose class sparked McClure’s interest, says the long-term impact of Young’s visit is “immeasurable.”

“Our hosting of the event is a step in the right direction, but it is going to take much more than participation in one event to move beyond 40-plus years of suspicion and hurt,” he said.

Butler also says the premier and the donation of the archive materials placed Flagler in a great position to participate in the preservation of the city’s civil rights legacy. In fact, Butler and College President William T. Abare Jr. were asked to serve on a committee looking at bringing a civil rights museum to St. Augustine.

“The material being donated by Ambassador Young [to the college] will provide an excellent foundation for building a collection on the important role of St. Augustine in the Civil Rights Movement,” Abare said.

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