ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The year is 1964. The United States is legally segregated, Congress is considering the Civil Rights Act and people who are against segregation are demonstrating in St. Augustine day and night.
On a rare occasion, a young Rev. Andrew Young was asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to go to St. Augustine and stop a demonstration. King had been arrested in St. Augustine before for peaceful demonstrations against discrimination.
“We felt that if we could get the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 passed that would take care of St. Augustine and we would, we could do better in Washington than we could in St. Augustine,” Young, now 88, told News4Jax.
But when he arrived, the demonstrators -- mostly women and children -- wanted to march to the old slave market in front of the Ku Klux Klan, a pro-segregation group known for beating and killing African Americans.
Young, along with pastors, women and children, walked to the square. They saw the Klan. Young thought the group of courageous demonstrators would turn around.
Instead, they prayed.
“I asked who was going back to the church. Nobody said anything, and a lady started singing, ‘Be not dismayed, God will take care of you,’” Young said.
Young’s faith was tested. Knowing death was possible, they walked toward the Klan. Then Young walked ahead of the demonstrators to speak with the Klan.
“You’ve got a couple of hundred people here and we got maybe 35 or 40 mostly women and children. We are not trying to do anything by force. We are doing it by prayer,” Young said. “I thought I was making a good argument and somebody hit me in the back of the head with a blackjack or something.”
The media did not cover many demonstrations. However, on this day the police were there and captured this photo of men stomping Young.
For a moment, he blacked out, but got up. Willie Bolden, a member of the movement, helped him up.
“I said, ‘No. We can’t turn back now.’ So I went back in front of the line of mostly women and children, and we went down to the next corner. Well this time when they swung at me, I ducked,” Bolden said.
Young said eventually a policeman told the Klan to let the people through. He and the group marched on.
“We walked around the park and I remember somebody saying, ‘Them n****** got some nerves,’” Young said. “And one of the good old sister’s said, ‘It ain’t nerves, son. It’s faith.’”
Badly beaten, but filled with faith that their act of walking in the segregated south would have a ripple effect on getting integration.
“People got beat up worse in St. Augustine than they did on the bridge in Selma because we marched several nights and during the day,” Young said.
Shortly after, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. It was illegal to discriminate against a person due to race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
King and Young returned the next week to a local diner to get food and make sure integration was happening in St. Augustine. They were successful.
“It wasn’t our movement, this was a spiritual movement where the power of the spirit of God prevailed against the evils of some of his children,” Young explained.
However, the night in St. Augustine, standing before a group of racist men, remains a vivid memory for Young.
“I almost think that was the night that I grew up and became a man,” he said. “I’d been through lots of things in school, but that was one of the high points of my life. It was more important to me than, even more of a triumph for me than being elected to Congress or being appointed the head of the UN, because those were things somebody else did for me.
“St. Augustine, we were on our own and we had to trust in the Lord, and we learned that he never failed us yet.”
Young would go on to change the world as a U.N. ambassador, and as mayor of Atlanta, he led the city to unprecedented growth.
Young says he encourages young people, telling them that they too can make a difference in the world like King Jr. In fact, the famous orator and civil rights leader got a C in public speaking, according to Young. He explains that it teaches the lesson: You get to decide what you want to do with your life.