“We will not let a small group of white supremacists reverse years of progress and freedom,” said St Augustine – a suburb of St Augustine, FL, which is 46% Black and 52% White – Mayor Nancy Shaver in reference to the mayor of Jacksonville, a city with much higher black representation than St Augustine.
The city where the verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse was handed down on Friday, in a rather lopsided verdict, was named in the original Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act – where Rittenhouse’s killer John Kennedy Harris, described as a “white supremacist” by black defense attorney Andre Watson, could not vote in that state because of restrictions in the voting rights act.
After winning three difficult and racially-tinged civil rights cases at the Supreme Court to change the voting rights act of 1965, the Nixon administration soon put to the full test its ideological approach towards racial equality. It faced down Alabama’s rabid Ku Klux Klan as well as its own ineptitude in handling the growing civil rights movement, and from then until today, it has opposed interracial marriages and marriage rights, and fought vigorously to keep itself free of any relevance to African Americans. But at the same time, it engaged in aggressive nationwide efforts to integrate its public schools.
I had the privilege of growing up in a town of 27,000 which, between 1995 and 2002, had implemented a system of white quotas in public school reading programs, in order to keep blacks from sending their kids to other schools. “If this is what St Augustine can tolerate, tell me how good our education system is,” was the feeling I had the first day I entered a new school. The problem was, once I learned that education was not free in the 1940s, and that I had to pay the same as my white peers for the privilege of education, I sat quietly for years. After all, was paying a new tax to benefit other children the price of education that some of us were willing to pay?
In 1963, three civil rights workers – Martin Luther King Jr, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were brutally beaten by a rioting mob, and the city was seen as one of the most hostile to Black people. “After the attack,” some said, “we knew we were going to have to stay in our ghetto home, with all our doors closed, making sure no one came inside.”
St Augustine – on the other hand, in the 1980s, when a much larger injustice occurred, St Augustine was one of the “sanctuaries” of the BIPOC (black people or members of another ethnic group) communities in the US, as black people fought to find equal footing with whites in St Augustine. The open racial behavior and character of the city, not only during the civil rights movement, but since, was demonstrated by the city government itself – a city government which was not only hostile to the Black community, but to those of other races, gender, and sexually. In the ’70s, The Black Panther Party was brought into operation after being called by the community. The upshot of their “Wild Man” event was that the police killed a Black Panther who claimed he was unarmed – a fact which earned the city a lawsuit that is still hanging over it.
One day, during a protest after the attempted lynching of a Black Panther, many of the residents of St Augustine took to the streets and marched for hours, and we were well aware that some Black Panthers and Black Panthers supporters had intentions of staying the whole day, and that there were actually police who said they would shoot anyone who appeared to be a Black Panther supporter.
The day turned out to be an important turning point for a city that could no longer keep up with a changing racial demographics, and the story of the Proclamation that Black Panther Bobby Seale had presented to the people of St Augustine is a celebration of hard-fought progress for a country that was once seen as a racist dystopia, and is still on a path to opening up its private white capitalist economy.
As Edward Said once said:
“I think the period of total black oppression in the US has not yet come to an end. There may be moments of silence around the issue of black self-expression and protest, but on the whole it is not a piece of cake. “
The week of the St Augustine jury verdict, a Change.org petition on “Immediately Lift the Black Barriers in Florida’s Voting Rights Act” is now nearing 50,000 signatures. It raises a point that no doubt should be on