St. Augustine Movement
St. Augustine, Florida, 1963–64
St. Augustine, on the northeast coast of Florida was famous as the “Nation’s Oldest City,” founded by the Spanish in 1565. It became the stage for a great drama leading up to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. A local movement, led by Dr. Robert B. Hayling, a black dentist and Air Force veteran, and affiliated with the NAACP, had been picketing segregated local institutions since 1963, as a result of which Dr. Hayling and three companions, James Jackson, Clyde Jenkins, and James Hauser, were brutally beaten at a Ku Klux Klan rally in the fall of that year.
Nightriders shot into black homes, and teenagers Audrey Nell Edwards, JoeAnn Anderson, Samuel White, and Willie Carl Singleton (who came to be known as “The St. Augustine Four“) spent six months in jail and reform school after sitting in at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. It took a special action of the governor and cabinet of Florida to release them after national protests by the Pittsburgh Courier, Jackie Robinson, and others.
In response to the repression, the St. Augustine movement practiced armed self-defense in addition to nonviolent direct action. In June 1963, Dr. Hayling publicly stated that “I and the others have armed. We will shoot first and answer questions later. We are not going to die like Medgar Evers.” The comment made national headlines. When Klan nightriders terrorized black neighborhoods in St. Augustine, Hayling’s NAACP members often drove them off with gunfire, and in October, a Klansman was killed.
In 1964, Dr. Hayling and other activists urged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come to St. Augustine. The first action came during spring break, when Hayling appealed to northern college students to come to the Ancient City, not to go to the beach, but to take part in demonstrations. Four prominent Massachusetts women—Mrs. Mary Parkman Peabody, Mrs. Esther Burgess, Mrs. Hester Campbell (all of whose husbands were Episcopal bishops), and Mrs. Florence Rowe (whose husband was vice president of John Hancock Insurance Company) came to lend their support. The arrest of Mrs. Peabody, the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts, for attempting to eat at the segregated Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge in an integrated group, made front page news across the country, and brought the civil rights movement in St. Augustine to the attention of the world.
Widely publicized activities continued in the ensuing months, as Congress saw the longest filibuster against a civil rights bill in its history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964, the only place in Florida he was arrested. He sent a “Letter from the St. Augustine Jail” to a northern supporter, Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey, urging him to recruit others to participate in the movement. This resulted, a week later, in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history—while conducting a pray-in at the Monson.
A famous photograph taken in St. Augustine shows the manager of the Monson Motel pouring acid in the swimming pool while blacks and whites are swimming in it. The horrifying photograph was run on the front page of the Washington newspaper the day the senate went to vote on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Remembering A Civil Rights Swim-In: ‘It Was A Milestone’
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1863-1963 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1964-2009 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)