A month in America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, Florida, makes clear that history is a strange thing. History is the past, but it’s also the telling of it, the renderings of it. The English language does not distinguish between the two – the past as it was – and the past as remembered and interpreted. Only the interpreted past is available to us.
Historians distinguish between the two with the word ‘history’ (the past) and ‘historiography’, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the study of historical writings or the writing of history”.
Most interesting during our one-month stay in St. Augustine were the different historiographies of the Civil Rights Movement.
Tourists in St. Augustine walk past homes and churches with plaques like this one that tell the story of the brave civil rights history of the ’50s and ’60s on what’s called The Freedom Trail.
The casual tourist is unlikely to notice that the Freedom Trail story is not the only one in town. There are two different sets of plaques. The groups that wrote and erected them represent different, often competing, historiographies.
The more prominent set of plaques the define The Freedom Trail were created by ACCORD. They highlight the role of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The other is the project of a group of local citizens led by the Eubanks family, whose father, the Rev. Goldie M. Eubanks, Sr, was Vice President of the St. Augustine Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose work predated and continued after the arrival of Dr. King and the SCLC in St. Augustine.
The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in America. In the 1950s and ’60s, many civil rights leaders came to regard it as too passive, too conservative. The word ‘Colored’ in its name labelled it as out of touch with Back pride. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arose as a bolder, more activist organization, although the the SCLC and the NAACP represented by Dr. King and Roy Wilkins, respectively, worked closely together. To the left of SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), arrived on the national scene.
While in St. Augustine, we lived next door to a home on The Freedom Trail identified by ACCORD as important to the Movement in St. Augustine. Some of the men who gathered there every mid-morning until dark seem to identify with Dr. King and the SCLC. Others seem resentful that Dr. King and the SCLC got the praise for the work of Rev. Eubanks, Rev. Thomas, and Dr. Robert Hayling, a courageous local dentist, who paved the way for national media attention to the plight in St. Augustine. The historiography of the latter group is posted on the alternative plaques that focus more on the indigenous leaders who put their lives on the line every day as citizens of St. Augustine.
History and historiography are like that. The four Gospels of the New Testament look at the same time period and events with different memories and different angles on the Jesus story. The nature of history is that it always leaves itself to interpretation. And the nature of historiography is that it raises the question of the story-teller’s angle.
In light of Dr. King’s later speeches about the intrinsic connection between capitalism, the War in Vietnam, and militarism, it seems a great paradox that it was the Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the largest Department of Defense contractors, that funded the ACCORD project centered on Dr. King. History and historiography are always strange. Always they involve some concoction of our better selves, self-interest, pride, and sometimes, a heavy dose of irony.