History and the people who make it: Lawrence Goodwyn

Lawrence Goodwyn [G], eyewitness author of “Anarchy in St. Augustine” in Harper’s Magazine (1965), was interviewed by Dr. Paul Ortiz [O] in 2011.

This is the 38th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

O: I wouldn’t expect you to completely separate your life as a historian from your experiences in St. Augustine. But those experiences are really critical, because in Florida today, what people know about the Civil Rights Movement is almost nothing. And what the city of St. Augustine has done to the history of the Civil Rights Movement is to completely suppress it. You were there in [19]64. Can you talk about that?

G: I made a tour through the South in ’64 and the first stop was Mississippi Delta, which was undergoing Mississippi Freedom Summer.

They’d had what they call the Freedom Vote in ’63, in which they were trying to teach people who had never had the experience of voting how to do that. And in ’64 they were going beyond that. It was an active insurgency on the party of black people in Mississippi Delta even to have classes on how to vote. It drew a lot of attention in the nation. They recruited nine hundred people not from Mississippi, from college campuses, white schools, black schools, all kinds of schools.

Now we present the North with a different problem, which was that these were not faceless people who were in jail, these were their sons and daughters. SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was the pivotal civil rights organization behind Freedom Summer. CORE, another urban-based organization in the North, was also a participant. Certain members of the NAACP also were participants. Dr. King had his own reservations about it, and he went to Florida because of it.

I started out in the Delta and then I went to Montgomery, Alabama where I met James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who was quite willing to share his irritation at why they weren’t all in the Delta helping this national effort which Bevel considered more important than anything else going on. I spent three or four days with Bevel who had his own active movement in himself; he was so creative.

Then on to St. Augustine, and by that time it had really heated up. The national press corps was there, it was also in Mississippi. There was a Danish television correspondent with a cameraman who waded into the Atlantic where they had activities, integrating the beaches and so forth. Much hilarity about integrating the Atlantic Ocean, and whether is was big enough to take two races at the same time without crumbling into anarchy and chaos.

I’ve written an article that was published in Harper’s magazine in April of 1965, I think it’s April 30. The leader of the movement in St. Augustine was a man named Hayling. He was a dentist and an impressive man. He was active because he was ready to be free himself and for all the people of St. Augustine to be free.  And he persuaded Dr. King and Abernathy and Andy Young and the brothers and sisters to come to St. Augustine.

They generated a movement around the slave auction site, it’s now a historic site. There was this National States’ Rights Party with a man named Stoner. Anyway, the Klan made inflammatory speeches to crush this movement, if they dare do anything, which they did dare to do—they being the Civil Rights Movement.

I interviewed Hayling at great length and his repository of written sources on the conditions in Florida were enormous. He had reports from the Florida Civil Rights Commission; they were sympathetic to the idea of integrating America and ending Jim Crow in Florida. Florida needed it badly. It had a separatist white supremacist state policy that rivaled Mississippi and Alabama in terms of sheer tenacity and ruthlessness. St. Augustine was right in the center of all of that. Hayling knew it and he was determined that America would know it.

They set in motion a series of events that succeeded in bringing Florida to the attention of the world—with the cooperation of the Klan, which had a formal presence in the city with a name: the Ancient City Gun Club. Most of them were deputized as deputy sheriffs of that county. Everywhere the Klan went, the cameras went. Everywhere the movement went, the cameras went. These were willing warriors on both sides.

Now, this takes place fifteen years before I get a Ph.D. in history. This is Lawrence Goodwyn, investigative journalist, civil rights activist. This is not Lawrence Goodwyn, gatherer of historical evidence.

I’m more skeptical of certain kinds of sources than of other kinds. I have profound skepticism of white America’s understanding of their own beliefs, including their own retrospective beliefs on that era and their non-beliefs. None of those things were in my mind at the time. I knew Dr. King, I knew Abernathy, I knew field secretaries of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, just as I knew SNCC field secretaries.

I was present in the organizing of this march in the black sectors of a segregated Southern city where I spent the night before the march. I had touched base with city authorities: the business community of St. Augustine was not monolithic in its response to the Civil Rights Movement. It appeared to be monolithic because those who wanted to do things did them and others—and that was most people—didn’t act.

So on this day, toward twilight, here comes the Civil Rights Movement. I was in a group of people waiting near the square where the slave auction site was. And there’s a street leading to it from the ghetto, here comes the Civil Rights Movement down the street.

I heard this woman say, oh look, the colored people are marching again. And it was not hostile, it was a sympathizer, a young woman, I would say age thirty, and she had two children there, about seven or nine. And—as we say in Texas—sho’ enough, she was right; here they came. I observed uniformed police and sheriff’s deputies. But they were widely separated by three or four yards between each one.

In between these uniformed officers there came non-uniformed members of the Ancient City Gun Club. And it was obvious that they had been doing some planning, neither was surprised by the presence of the other. It was almost a positioning of troops. The Klan was located between the officers, it would be: officer, two or three Klansmen, officer, two or three Klansmen, all the way down the block.

And here they came, they had banners. These were, now, in the summer of 1964, veteran civil rights organizers. They have been there before, they have an entirely internalized non-violent philosophy, learned from Dr. King. He is not there that day; this march is led by Abernathy—I believe it was Abernathy, it could’ve been C.T. Vivian.

It was palpably evident that all hell was gonna break loose sometime. About the time they got in front of me, it became apparently evident to the Klansmen that if they didn’t move now, these people were getting too far past them and all of a sudden they just rushed the movement. The scene disintegrated in mayhem and people began running. They were chased by the Klan and I just saw fleeing demonstrators and chasing Klansmen. Then I heard this eerie yell, a loud yell, this huge roar, which, it just struck me that, my god, I think this is the rebel yell.

My father was in the United States army; I myself was born on a cavalry post in Arizona, Fort Huachuca. So I had grown up as an Army brat in a military environment. I read about the Civil War, I knew about the Army of Northern Virginia, I knew about Robert E. Lee and all the brothers and so forth, I knew about Frederick Douglass.

I’d always wondered about the authenticity of these accounts about the rebel yell. Most accounts were written by Southerners, but Northern historians would also mention the high pitched rebel yell.

It would be many years before we mainstream American people—that is, not historians, just readers—could learn one of every eight soldiers on the Richmond-Petersburg line in 1864 and the spring of 1865 when the Confederate line finally broke —that one out of every eight persons in the Union army was black. At the time of the war itself, the South recruited in the name of states’ rights,  although every now and then it was in the name of preserving slavery.

So, I cannot testify that I ever had any particular interest in the rebel yell until I thought I just might have heard it myself. And then wondered, what does it mean that I don’t know and that I’m asking these questions of it later?

I said, my god, listen to this. Is this rebel yell? It just hit me. Three seconds before that happened I was watching impending doom about to occur. The Civil Society in St. Augustine, Florida coming down the road; I was anxiety-ridden, worried, intense, attentive, but not thinking I was watching a Civil War. I was watching political conflict at its most vivid that I’d ever seen. And all of a sudden the scene disintegrates, people go in all directions. I hear this sound and it occurs to me, my god, is that the rebel yell? What it meant to me was, I had a new way to think about the American Civil War. One hundred and fifty years later we’re still discovering who we are.

O: Was the rebel yell about white supremacy?

G: Not consciously, but the energy behind it was white supremacist in its manifestation. It’s a white man’s country and we are proving that to the world as we charge across this field. It’s a speculation on my part.

My father told me something when I was fourteen years old and he caught me reading a book by a famous Southern historian named Douglas Southall Freeman. He said, let me tell you something, boy. Southerners do the things they do because they don’t know any better. You understand that?

And the only answer to that question in my father’s presence was yes, sir. I had no idea what he was talking about. He knew I had no idea and he wanted to fix me in error, so that when I grew up a little bit and knew more than I knew at the age of fourteen, I might remember.

See http://oral.history.ufl.edu/files/Nov-2013-AAHP-177-Lawrence-Goodwyn-edits.pdf for the full transcript of this interview.

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