By SHELDON GARDNER
The St. Augustine Record
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) _ When Martin Luther King Jr., came to St. Augustine in the 1960s, he was looking to keep the momentum alive for passage of the Civil Rights Act.
He and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference members were looking for a community with an active civil rights movement, said David Colburn, a University of Florida history professor.
“They were also looking for a community that was symbolic in some way, and St. Augustine fit the bill,” he said.
It was 1964, and in the wake of demonstrations and brutality in Birmingham, Ala., there was some talk that King would go to Washington, D.C. His concern was about violence erupting there and the possibility of disrupting legislators. That would be counterproductive to the goal.
So when Robert Hayling, a leader of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, reached out to the SCLC for help in response to violence, officials responded. What met them was brutal violence, and what they found was a town ripe for change.
“They’d throw rocks at us and bricks at us and everything downtown,” said J.T. Johnson of Atlanta, an SCLC member who in 1964 jumped into the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge.
“People were very cruel in St. Augustine,” he said.
áAfter King arrived in St. Augustine, demonstrations followed that are credited with helping the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
St. Augustine was thrust into the national spotlight.
Why St. Augustine was the focal point of leaders in a crucial time was partly strategy. Leaders found an active movement here and knew what took place would grab the attention of the national media.
The city’s 400th anniversary played a role, if nothing else for symbolism: It was the oldest city in the nation, and also the oldest segregated city.
Demonstrations had already been taking place since the ’50s by the time King arrived, Colburn said.
“We didn’t start the movement,” Johnson said.
A couple of men were major figures in St. Augustine’s movement.
The Rev. Thomas Wright, who graduated from Florida Memorial College, was part of reorganizing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was its president, according to information from the exhibit, “Journey: 450 Years of the African-American Experience Exhibition” at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center.
In the ’50s and ’60s, Wright was part of non-violent training for students, some of whom took part in lunch-counter protests at Woolworth.
Wright and his family moved after being threatened.
Hayling, a dentist, led a protest in March 1963 for the NAACP against the segregated 400th anniversary celebration of St. Augustine.
People in the movement wanted to be part of the anniversary, but the power structure said no, said resident Barbara Vickers, who was part of demonstrations.
Some people in town knew the timing was right because of the anniversary, said Thomas James “T.J.” Jackson, who was 12 when he participated in a march. There was enthusiasm about the anniversary, and that increased the attention on St. Augustine.
Hayling established a youth council for the NAACP that held non-violent demonstrations and the Woolworth sit-in protest that ended with four teenagers getting arrested.
The Ku Klux Klan “terrorized African-American neighborhoods in St. Augustine,” but “they were driven off with gunfire,” according to the exhibit. That happened after the KKK beat Hayling and other activists in September 1963.
The NAACP and Hayling eventually split, and Hayling contacted the SCLC for the help.
SCLC officials came at Hayling’s request. The symbolism of the approaching 400th anniversary may have been icing on the cake.
A quote from a speech King gave in St. Augustine, shown in the Journey exhibit, reads:
“St. Augustine is merely a symbol of an expression of the tragedies that invoke our whole nation in the area of racial issues. Now the fact is that we are picking on St. Augustine, we are seeking to make this the oldest city in the United States, one of the most democratic cities of the United States.”
The SCLC sent in representatives to see how things were going.
“They found that there was a pretty strong movement,” Colburn said.
When King arrived, so did more white militants from outside St. Augustine.
King and leaders held meetings at churches and organized marches and demonstrations, which were met with violence.
Some of St. Augustine’s law enforcement officers were opposed to demonstrations and did not find more subtle approaches to preventing them.
“St. Augustine reacted much more militantly,” Colburn said. “They turned dogs and police batons on the demonstrators. . They actually cooperated with the militants.”
The marches and demonstrations that followed were peaceful.
Jackson, of St. Johns County, remembers that people were told that if they couldn’t keep themselves from fighting, they should not march.
He was 12 years old when he went to meetings at churches around the community.
He was in a march when Andrew Young was attacked. He remembered that a white man from Boston was walking with them.
“They knocked all of us out the way and jumped on him,” Jackson said of the attackers.
The marchers went around the plaza and near the former slave market, which was full of people “with bats and chains and hoses.”
“ `We Shall Overcome,’ ” he said. “ `We Shall Not Be Moved.’ Those were two of the main songs we sang.”
The churches were also segregated.
At one of the church meetings with King, Vickers remembered agreeing to participate in the kneel-ins, the church demonstrations where people would go to segregated churches and pray.
She remembered one usher telling them to leave during a demonstration.
“He said, `If I ever see your face around here again, you’ll be sorry,’ ” she said.
Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine was where most of the reporters stayed, Colburn said.
In June 1964, demonstrators jumped into the pool, and the motel’s manager poured muriatic acid into it in response. King was also arrested.
That photo was circulated nationally, and by July Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.
While St. Augustine wasn’t initially on the schedule for the SCLC, what happened in St. Augustine played a role in pushing the act along, Johnson said.
“We gave St. Augustine some credit for that,” he said.