When we think of St. Augustine, we think of the quintessential “First City” of Florida – the four hundred year old streets, the Lighthouse and the Castillo de San Marco – but there is another side to St. Augustine that is much less well known. In the early 1960s, St. Augustine became a pivotal battle ground in the Civil Rights movement. “St. Augustine, Florida, is one of the significant but not unduly famous chapters of the black freedom struggle in the South” (Garrow).
The issues that would lead to the epic conflicts in the summer of 1964 actually began in 1963 after a group of “city fathers planned an elaborate dinner to dedicate the first phase of restoring the old section of St. Augustine” but did not add any black leaders to the group. The black community was upset by the snub and “this exclusion of a large portion of the community set off a series of events that ultimately brought Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to St. Augustine” (Warren). What happened over the course of 1963 and 1964 would truly change the course of American history.
The protests in St. Augustine began at a local level in 1963, when sit-ins organized by the NAACP and Dr. Robert Hayling, who is considered to be the “father of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine” (DeMatteo). During the summer of 1963 there were a “number of trial runs for bigger demonstrations to follow,” including picketing and sit-ins of stores with lunch counters who refused to serve blacks (Florida Legislature).
Later in 1963 the Klan would join the fray. On September 1, 1963, they “held a night meeting in the open country on a side road…after having been refused a permit to hold their rally in the city” (Florida Legislature). It is alleged that 400 people were at the first meeting and that 2,500 were there for the next meeting on September 2 (Florida Legislature). As anyone familiar with race relations and the Civil Rights movement knows, the Klan is a big, well organized, well known organization with a fearsome reputation for violence, hatred, domestic terrorism and fierce opposition to anyone who is not a white Protestant, with a special hatred for blacks and Jews. Their arrival in St. Augustine would take the conflict to a new level as their “violence would be felt in brutal confrontations with peaceful demonstrators” (Warren). The Klan made it clear that they would “lead the fight to keep St. Augustine separate” (Warren).
In the spring of 1964, the conflict would gain a new dimension when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decided that St. Augustine would be an ideal place to bring his philosophy of non-violent resistance. In March 1964, “King announced…that SCLC would use its non-violent army to desegregate the ‘Oldest Segregated City in America’” (Florida Legislature). The major events of 1964, King’s arrival notwithstanding, were those during June, when attempts to integrate a hotel pool and the St. Augustine beaches were met with violence that would be well publicized across the country. “St. Augustine officials were unhappy with the national coverage of rioting in St. Augustine,” but, unlike other beach communities in Florida, who “opposed integration” but also realized that “a protracted civil rights siege would be costly and ruinous,” they were apparently still not concerned enough to allow integration to take place (DeMatteo) (Morimo). Video clips from the film Dare Not Walk Alone and other news clips from the era capture the stunning violence that met these efforts at peaceful protest and integration and St. Augustine is seen in history as “justifiably notable…for the unmatched intensity of resistance that its white community offered to local civil rights initiatives” (Garrow).
Over the course of the events of 1963 and 1964, myriad arrests were made of both integrationists and segregationists alike. St. Augustine even holds the dubious honor of being the only place in Florida where Martin Luther King was arrested (DeMatteo). However, the protests, conflicts, arrests, picketing, sit-ins and wade-ins would have the desired effect. Eventually the filibuster to keep the vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be ended, the Civil Rights Act would be passed and even though there was “still strong resistance in St. Augustine to implementing its provisions…such resistance was doomed” and “the law of the land would prevail in time” (ACCORD, Inc.). A report of the Florida Legislature in 1965 concluded that “the laws our land – local, state, and national – should and do apply to all people,” thus finally determining that integration should proceed (Florida Legislature). Obviously these things take time, and many argue that racial issues still exist in St. Augustine, but nevertheless, the summer of 1964 was a watershed moment.
The effects of the sits ins of 1963, the picketing and marches of 1964, and the wade ins at St. Augustine beach in 1964 in particular would have a far reaching effect not only on St. Augustine or even Florida as a whole, but on the entire nation. Some have even credited the events in St. Augustine as the final catalyst needed for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Historian David Nolan holds that “If not for television images of blacks being brutalized in St. Augustine, and one dying U.S. senator casting his last vote, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have passed” (DeMatteo). However you see it, St. Augustine holds an important place not only in the history of Florida but in the history of the United States as one of the landmarks of the Civil Rights era.