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Acid in the Pool: An Ongoing Struggle for Civil Rights


From the blog:

In 1964, a few young blacks decided to take a dip in a whites-only pool at a whites-only hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. The hotel’s owner, James Brock, reacted by emptying jugs of hydrochloric acid into the water to expel the unwanted swimmers.

This act of civil disobedience was one among many in the small city on the northeast coast of Florida, which in 1964 was celebrating its 400th anniversary. Because of that anniversary, the national spotlight was already on America’s oldest settlement, and the leaders of the civil rights movement took advantage of that attention to bring some to their own cause.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself tried to eat at the Monson Motor Lodge, and Mr. Brock pleaded with him to take his business elsewhere. And for more than 40 years, James Brock refused to talk with reporters about the acid incident or his encounter with Dr. King.

Jeremy Dean, a young filmmaker who lived in St. Augustine for six years, was the first. In his debut feature-length documentary, Dare Not Walk Alone, Dean interviews James Brock as well as former activists from the era to raise awareness of that pivotal moment in American history. But he also goes a step further: Dean connects the historical fight for equality to the present, proving that while the movement did great things and propelled society forward, the work is far from over. While blacks are free to eat (and swim) wherever they choose in St. Augustine today, the ongoing disparity in wealth and opportunity indicates a broken system, and it’s not merely about race.

As one of the film’s primary subjects, former activist and current city commissioner of St. Augustine, Errol Jones, puts it: “It’s not an African American problem, it’s an American problem. And it’s not an African American struggle, it’s an American struggle. And we have to address it all as Americans.”

Dean masterfully weaves the narrative of St. Augustine’s troubled past together with the tales of a few individuals, giving a human face to the injustices that still plague not only that city but many, many more American cities to this day.

Dare Not Walk Alone, which took five years to complete, has been shown at 30 film festivals and colleges across the country, and it is available on Netflix.

I saw Dare Not Walk Alone last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the director gave a brief talk and fielded questions after the film. I followed up with this brief interview:

Where did you grow up, and when/how did you develop an interest in social justice?

I was born in Lubbock, Texas, and grew up a missionary kid in Mexico and the Amazon jungle of Peru where I fished for piranha and was forced to eat monkey on several occasions. My parents were very cool people and we would go down there, live with the people and build something beneficial for for the community like a hospital or an orphanage. So that is where I was exposed to diverse people groups and saw the inequality that exists between the haves and the have nots and the clear prejudice against indigenous people in developing countries. So that is why when I came to St. Augustine and part of the city looked like some of the third world countries I grew up in, it really effected me and made me want to know why it was that way.

What sorts of questions did you go into making this film with?

We are generally taught that the Civil Rights movement was a huge success and that it is a thing of the past, but I wanted to know: If the movement was so successful, why is there still so much inequality today?

Did the film’s scope change as you began researching the issue and interviewing your subjects?

The whole process was very organic, but my basic questions never changed. However the world has drastically changed since I started working on the film. We did our first rough cut as Hurricane Katrina was making landfall, so up until then no one was really talking about Southern rural poverty and the legacy of racism, which really bothered me. Katrina and the botched response opened the nation’s eyes to the problem, but sadly we did not make too much headway. Then came the election of President Obama, which has really made a difference. In part because we have a positive framework to begin the discussion as opposed to the usual conversation starters that have more to do with some horrific incident that rightfully enrages African Americans and puts whites on the defensive. I think now we can start the conversation on more of an even playing field. So though we still do not live in a “post race” world, we are making some progress.

How has the film been received at festivals and other screenings around the country? Is there a difference in how it’s received in different parts of the country?

We have gotten responses across the spectrum: some people love it, others hate it, but no one is ambivalent after watching the film. It gets a conversation started, which is about the best thing one can hope for. What makes the film interesting and relevant to audiences around the country is that though the story takes place in St. Augustine, it resonates in other cities because they can see parts of there communities reflected in the streets of St. Augustine. The most common response we get is: “We have a part of town that looks just like West Augustine,” so in that way St. Augustine has become a microcosm for the country as a whole.

What sorts of lessons did you take away from meeting the people you interviewed, and telling their stories?

One of the biggest things that struck me was seeing kids 15 or 16 years old walk out in the street and non-violently stand up to pure evil and hatred, offering their bodies as the ultimate sacrifice without ever fighting back to draw attention to injustice. Some of them even going to jail for up to six months where they were in effect tortured, but who still refused to back down and went right back out on the line to march as soon as they were released. I don’t know too many of us who have that kind of conviction today, even though we need it.

Ideally, what function do you hope your film will serve in the present day, as well as in the future?

Every filmmaker hopes that they will make a film that will change the world, but I hope that Dare Not Walk Alone just keep people talking and reflecting.

What are you working on now? Will you continue to make documentaries investigating social justice issues?

I will always be interested in issues of social justice. My latest project moves back in the art direction with a conceptual art installation exploring the melt down of the economy and is in effect about economic justice, which is at the heart of every social problem.

[Image: Len Murray, Indican Pictures, NY Times]

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