Dr. King in St. Augustine

by Josue Cruz // photos via Florida Memory

Twenty days before the signing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, Northeast Florida was rumbling with tension and turmoil. Down in St. Augustine, nightly protest marches by activists seeking to desegregate the Ancient City were being met by Klu Klux Klan opposition. The clashes, at times violent, were a daily discussion of then Florida Governor Farris Bryant. He began to receive phone calls from President Johnson, requesting both information and that the governor take control of the situation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also sending letters to President Johnson concerning the same occurrences. King had arrived in St. Augustine on June 9, 1964, with the intent of desegregating St. Augustine once and for all, even if it meant, and perhaps hoping, that he would be arrested. “This is the beginning of an all-out push to make St. Augustine a desegregated city,” King said to a crowd. “We are determined to see this city desegregated before next year’s quadricentennial celebration.”

The letters from King to President Johnson were of an “enough-is-enough” tonality, knowing that the Civil Rights Act was in play and close to landing on the President’s desk.

St. Augustine was on the eve of its quadricentennial celebration and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) saw this an opportunity to make a major push for civil rights equality. The Old Slave Market, the city center today known as Plaza de la Constitución, would be ground zero for an end to discriminatory practices, endorsed or ignored by government officials up to that point.

Prior to King’s arrival, he and other leaders of the SCLC had learned that law enforcement officials in St. Augustine had been sweeping up protesters and activists and holding them in outdoor compound “sweatboxes,” which in the Florida June heat was akin to torture.

Early in the morning of King’s arrival into Northeast Florida, a local district judge had lifted bans on the nightly protests and ordered that no protester arrested could be placed in the outdoor sweatboxes, saying they demonstrated “more than cruel and unusual punishment” and were “deliberately contrived to break men physically and mentally.” Still, local law enforcement officials continued to do so, citing over-crowded jails, since the judge had not made it illegal to arrest activists and protesters.

The sit-ins, pray-ins and marches were reaching a feverish pace, no longer relegated to nights. All around St. Augustine, activists entered segregated hotels, restaurants, beaches and swimming pools to get a foothold on the national media attention that accompanied President Johnson’s attention. The span of a few days raised the temperature of the civil rights conversation to a boil, and King saw the opportunity to cause the boil-over—which he hoped would lead to subsequent actions by President Johnson.

Close to lunchtime on Thursday, June 11, King gathered a crew of demonstrators, camera crews and reporters and set a path to enter the Monson Motor Lodge restaurant. Alongside Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Robert England, 17 demonstrators respectfully requested to be served a meal, some sitting at tables, others seated at the quick-serve counter. The restaurant’s manager quickly refused service and asked the hungry protesters to leave. King was the first to refuse to leave and resubmitted his request.

The officers, who had also followed the demonstrators into the restaurant, wasted no time in arresting King and the others, taking them to the same overcrowded, non-air-conditioned cells.

Along with the suffocating heat of the evening came death threats to King. Bryant, recognizing the gravity of the situation and receiving pressure from the White House, ordered King and Reverend Abernathy be moved to a Jacksonville jail for safety and comfort. They were transported the few miles north on Saturday, June 13.

King would be shuttled between the Jacksonville jail and the federal courthouse. He had originally been sentenced to 10 days of jail time when he was arrested in St. Augustine. The hearing occurred Monday, June 15. In Jacksonville, he was held in dimly lit solitary confinement, which he mentioned in his brief testimony on the stand. “I’ve been treated all right, but I don’t like solitary confinement,” King said. “I’m in a lonely dark and desolate cell here, cut off from everybody. The light is so dim, I can hardly see.”

The hearing concluded with charges pending. King posted $900 bond and was driven to Jacksonville Imeson Airport before heading north. Less than a week later, he would receive an honorary doctor of law degree from Yale University.

Back in St. Augustine, protests continued. High-profile activists arrived, looking to continue the pressure on President Johnson and the Senate to act and pass the Civil Rights Act. President Johnson signed the document into law on July 2, 1964.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. is entrenched in Northeast Florida and Jacksonville’s history and present. Aside from the schools and parkway named in his honor, the city is home to one of the most robust and most visited Martin Luther King Jr. parades, which occurs every year on the national observation of his birthday and in 2018 celebrated its 39th iteration. The city of Jacksonville also commemorates his extraordinary life with a Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast, now in its 31st year. The breakfast is an opportunity to continue the conversations of inclusiveness and equality that King fought to highlight.

This story was compiled utilizing a variety of sources, including Andrew Morrow, archivist at the Jacksonville Historical Society.