ST. AUGUSTINE -- Gwendolyn Duncan watched in 1964 as the Ku Klux Klan in white robes and hoods marched down the street in her hometown.
“I remember the fear,” Duncan said.
Duncan was only 8 at the time and thought the spectacle was a parade, but it was a display of hate and resistance to the civil rights struggle, as blacks fought entrenched discrimination.
Black residents had also been marching in the city’s downtown, singing freedom songs, holding sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and wade-ins at segregated area beaches. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other well-known organizers from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference were there, too.
Today, that polarizing struggle is little known. But a half-century ago, it made big news and helped to make history by encouraging lawmakers in Washington to push through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now, the city and disparate organizations are struggling to come together to remember what happened in the charming historical town in northeast Florida.
Demonstrations in St. Augustine had been in the news for months as the SCLC joined Dr. Robert B. Hayling and other local activists to march against Jim Crow segregation laws.
In early June 1964, King and several other activists were arrested for attempting to integrate the Monson Motor Lodge. It was the only place in Florida where King was arrested.
King pledged to challenge segregation in St. Augustine “even if it takes all summer,” a phrase full of irony as it had been used a century earlier by a Confederate leader during the Civil War.
A week later, King invited reform rabbis and educators to the motel for a June 18 demonstration. A Miami Herald article read: “King had urged the rabbis in a telegram to take part in the demonstrations, saying St. Augustine, Fla. has become the battleground between the forces of good and ill will in our nation. The nation’s oldest city can be changed to a democratic community. We cannot allow them to celebrate 400 years of bigotry and hate.”
The Jewish religious leaders were jailed after participating in a pray-in at the motel and serving as decoys for swimmers.
St. Augustine is best known as a coastal resort town. But in 1964, activists encouraged tourists to avoid the Sunshine State until segregation ended. Segregationists beat protesters, held rallies and burned crosses. Journalists covering the protests had to hire guards. The old slave market in the city’s central plaza was the focal point of the opposing camps.
The “400 years of bigotry” King referred to was “the nation’s oldest city” preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary in 1965. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed only whites to the federally funded St. Augustine Quadricentennial Commission.
Hayling, the dentist, objected that no African Americans were included on the commission. With the NAACP, he complained to the White House.
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote to local NAACP leaders, promising “no event in which I will participate in St. Augustine will be segregated.” But local black leaders still were not included.
As the Birmingham, Alabama civil rights campaigns led by King progressed, activists led by Hayling in St. Augustine connected with King’s SCLC to enlist its support.
King and key staffer Andrew Young were skeptical about getting involved in the small Florida town until an SCLC group from Boston came down for Easter break. The April 1, 1964 front page of the Herald reported “St. Augustine Jails Mother of Massachusetts Governor.” Public attention on St. Augustine intensified.
King’s June 18, 1964 protest was orchestrated to grab the country and lawmakers’ attention on a crucial vote in the U.S. Senate on the Civil Rights Act that would make discrimination in schools, businesses, accommodations and employment illegal.
Racial tensions filled news reports across the country that summer. In Mississippi, Freedom Summer volunteers entered the Magnolia state as did teachers and political organizers.
St. Augustine historian David Nolan said news photos that showed a police officer jumping fully clothed into the pool at the Monson Motor Lodge to forcibly evict white and black swimmers and another of the motel owner pouring acid into the pool tipped sentiment in favor of senators voting for the legislation. It had been filibustered for weeks.
King hailed the vote as progress and was bolstered by then-Florida Gov. C. Farris Bryant’s promise to create a biracial committee to address systemic discrimination. That promise turned out to be empty. Hayling, after suffering beatings and threats on his life, moved to Fort Lauderdale.
SLOW TO REMEMBER
Slowly, St. Augustine worked toward integration. But it wasn’t until recent years that the city began to revisit the events of 1964. Local activists say that’s ironic given that a centerpiece of the city is a 450-year-old fort established by Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez.
Nolan, the historian, recalls going up against city leaders who failed to preserve landmarks, such as the Monson Motor Lodge, that were important parts of its civil rights struggle.
“This is one of the greatest events in our modern history and it’s something we can be most proud of,” Nolan said. “Pedro Menendez, mass murderer, who slaughtered the Lutherans — what crappy beginnings to have. But here you have something that changed America and inspired the world and it happened here and it was done by people here, against the greatest of odds, all forces arrayed against them. Let’s make this known.”
On the 50th anniversary of the civil rights struggle in St. Augustine, the city mounted an exhibit at the official Visitor’s Information Center called Journey: 450 Years of the African-American Experience. The city has also installed a caste of Andrew Young’s bronze footsteps on the street marking where segregationists beat him that summer.
Flagler College is working with Young to create an online civil rights library with documents, oral histories, and timelines with numerous events and speakers at the college on the civil rights struggle.
The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society has invited back the surviving rabbis for an event focusing on why they participated in the protests.
Duncan said these events are positive but she is skeptical. Anniversary to Commemorate the Civil Rights Demonstrations, a group that she founded, is transforming Hayling’s dental office into a museum with artifacts of the movement. She wants those who took extreme risks to be acknowledged for their bravery.
“It is time, I say past time, to say thank you, that your struggles were not in vain,” Duncan said.