In commemoration of Martin Luther King Day 2021, it is timely to recall the critical role Florida played in the passage of Civil Rights legislation- specifically St Augustine which the epicenter of MLK Jr. and Southern Christian Leadership Council (SLC) activity during the Senate filibuster of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The oldest city in what is now the United States provided the backdrop for a tense spring in 1964. Florida under the leadership of Governor Ferris Bryant was defiant in the civil rights era. Bryant who followed the visionary Leroy Collins as Governor was a decided step-back for the Florida in terms of moving the state forward.
It was also symbolic because St Augustine prior to American rule was the most integrated and cosmopolitan town in what is now the southern United States (this history is a theme of the book I am currently writing). But by the 1830’s it was like any other southern American city.
The Florida Legislature of the early 1960s was also especially hostile to Civil Rights, though that could entirely be blamed on the fact that reapportionment that should have followed the Baker v. Carr decision was put off until 1968 and thus the legislature was still disproportionately rural, Democratic and conservative- Jeffersonian and Segregationist.
In 1963, the NAACP targeted St Augustine as a community which could be used a powerful symbol of segregation in the south. The city was about to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its birth.
Sit ins began at St Augustine lunch counters in 1963 much as they had in Greensboro and other southern cities a few years earlier. Unlike the relative enlightenment of the upper south, much of Florida was a Ku Klux Klan hotbed and violence ensued. The Democratic Party in St Johns County was also dominated by segregationist sentiment, as well as a desire to hold onto power and so local political leadership was unified against the movement. Under this pressure of violence, local African Americans began to rethink their strategy and the demonstrations began to die out.
Dr. Robert Hayling is considered the “father” of the St Augustine movement by scholars – Hayling a native Floridian helped convince then Vice President Lyndon Johnson to come to St. Augustine in 1963 and speak in front of a integrated audience, a major milestone and breakthrough in the city.
By the fall of 1963, local law enforcement in coordination with the Ku Klux Klan began targeting protesters and spreading violence. Hayling pushed back but his advocacy of violence to retaliate against the violence of the segregationists led to national movement disenchantment with him. However, Hayling’s tactics would eventually be emulated by the likes of Stokley Carmichael and others as the non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a questionable tactic by later black militants.
1964- Martin Luther King Jr. and his lieutenants arrive
At this point Martin Luther King entered the picture. St Augustine became the focus of King’s movement for the spring and long hot summer of 1964. After King targeted St Augustine’s beach and downtown for integration, violence from local white citizens once again flared up.
During Spring Break 1964, King and his top lieutenants including Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Hosea Williams descended on St Augustine in an effort to create a global spectacle and shed light on the darkness of segregationist and racist Florida. Meanwhile President Johnson had pushed his Civil Rights bill through the US House but now faced an organized and disciplined southern filibuster in the Senate.
Non-violent protests by the Civil Rights leaders were met by violent push back from local law enforcement and white citizens. Many of those arrested where white protesters who had come to Florida from the north after King put out the call – a strategic move to increase pressure on the US Senate to act.
The Florida Legislature (which at this point still had not been reapportioned and was dominated by Democrats and rural legislators) in its special report issued during the 1965 Legislative session blamed black Muslims from Jacksonville and “northern agitators” for the violence.
However, subsequent investigations have revealed that the local white population had violent elements and that the local political leadership including the St John’s County Sheriff’s office (which was singled out for praise in the legislative report) were in fact less than even handed. The situation in St Augustine was tense and violence against the civil right demonstrators had a similar galvanizing affect on passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the House (Senate passage would come later after a filibuster which included Florida Senators George Smathers and Spessard Holland was broken) that the Selma incidents would a year later on passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965.
A Federal Court sided with the demonstrators after local officials prohibited them from organizing and machining at night. Local law enforcement claimed that they could protect the demonstrators only during the day. After the court order Governor Bryant, stated that he would stand on his constitutional rights as the Governor of Florida and would reject the court order. The state officially in its 1965 report blamed the Court order on lawyers from “New York and Chicago.”
Florida may have been on the periphery of the civil rights revolution prior to 1964, but state officials had learned to mimic the talking points of other southern leaders like Ross Barnett, James Patterson and George Wallace.
The moderating influence of Leroy Collins was gone by 1964 and Florida was every bit as resistant to Civil Rights as other southern states outside of enlightened figures like Miami Mayor Robert King High.
The beach integration efforts were thwarted by the local police who left several demonstrators in the water to potentially drown. One of the staging grounds for the summer was the Monson Motel, which was open to whites only.
There some white and black civil rights supporters went for a swim together and the motel’s owner sought to intimidate the swimmers by pouring acid in the pool. Dr King was also arrested for appearing on the motel’s premises. When King was in jail he called a Rabbi friend in New Jersey, who organized a mass demonstration and arrest of Rabbi’s who tried to interrogate the Monson and the beach after traveling to St Augustine.
The Monson was torn down years later and replaced by a Hilton. One wonders if this was done to avoid the embarrassment this hotel represented on an otherwise great and historic city, St Augustine.
On June 10, the southern filibusterer was broken with the help of Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) who worked with a Democratic administration to pass the legislation. The work of the Civil Rights movements continued but St Augustine proved the impetus for passage of the most far-reaching Civil Rights legislation since 1875.
St Augustine is one of the great historic cities in America. With that backdrop it provided a powerful symbol for Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. The events of the Summer of 1964 were an embarrassment for the state of Florida. The hostility Dr. King faced and the strength of the local Klan spoke volumes as to the state’s deep south mentality despite being historically very different from the aristocratic plantation driven deep south (St Augustine was the first cosmopolitan and integrated city in North America in the 1600’s but under American rule starting in 1821 became like any other southern racist town) .
Thankfully Dr. King’s efforts were not in vain and today Florida elects three African-Americans to congress and gave its electoral votes to an African-American in the 2008 and 2012 Presidential Elections.