In the spring of 1964, as St. Augustine, Florida, prepared to celebrate its 400th anniversary, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched a massive campaign supporting the small local movement to end racial discrimination in the nation’s oldest city. King hoped that demonstrations there would lead to local desegregation and that media attention would garner national support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was then stalled in a congressional filibuster.
Organized demonstrations reached St. Augustine in the summer of 1963, when Robert B. Hayling, a local dentist and advisor to the Youth Council of the city’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led pickets and sit-ins against segregated businesses. The Ku Klux Klan and other whites responded with violence against demonstrators, which escalated through the fall of 1963, when Hayling and three other NAACP members were severely beaten at a Klan rally, then arrested and convicted of assaulting their attackers. In December 1963, after a grand jury blamed the racial crisis on Hayling and other activists, the NAACP asked for Hayling’s resignation. St. Augustine activists then turned to SCLC for support.
SCLC had been aware of events in St. Augustine as early as July 1963, when King wrote to the White House questioning federal funding for the city’s 400th anniversary celebration. The following spring, after witnessing the activity of white supremacists and the absence of ministerial leadership in the city, SCLC board member C. T. Vivian recommended SCLC’s support. SCLC recruited white northern college students to participate in demonstrations and sit-ins during Easter week of 1964, and hundreds were jailed. Some were made to stand in a cramped outdoor overflow pen in the late spring heat, while others were put into a concrete “sweatbox” overnight. Bail rose from $100 per person up to $1,000.
King visited St. Augustine for the first time on 18 May 1964. Speaking at a Baptist church on 27 May, he told the congregation that segregation would soon be over in St. Augustine “because trouble don’t last always” (King, 27 May 1964). In the early morning of 29 May, the house SCLC rented for King in St. Augustine was sprayed by gunfire. On 11 June, the day after the Senate voted to end the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, King, Ralph Abernathy, and several others were arrested when they requested service at a segregated restaurant. Throughout June, SCLC led evening marches to the Old Slave Market, often facing counter demonstrations by the Klan, and provoking violence that garnered national media attention.
As the violence continued, King appealed to the federal government for assistance, asking the White House to pressure prominent white citizens to negotiate in good faith. Although by late June 1964 King was eager to leave St. Augustine and focus SCLC efforts on Alabama, he did not want to negatively affect the passage of the Civil Rights Act. When, on 18 June 1964, a Grand Jury called on King and SCLC to leave St. Augustine for one month to diffuse the situation, claiming that they had disrupted “racial harmony” in the city, King replied that the Grand Jury’s request was “an immoral one,” as it asked “the Negro community to give all, and the white community to give nothing.” “St. Augustine,” he insisted, had “never had peaceful race relations” (King, 19 June 1964).
As the Senate debated the Civil Rights Act, SCLC lawyers began to win court victories in St. Augustine. Judge Bryan Simpson continually ruled in favor of civil rights activists and encouraged SCLC to bring cases against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations. On 30 June 1964 Florida Governor C. Farris Bryant announced the formation of a biracial committee to restore interracial communication in St. Augustine. Although matters were far from resolved, national SCLC leaders left St. Augustine on 1 July, the day before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
Despite this national success, black residents in St. Augustine continued to face violence and intimidation. Consistent threats and picketing by the Klan led many of the town’s businesses to remain segregated. Although SCLC continued to provide some financial support to activists in St. Augustine beyond July 1964, the organization never returned to the city. King observed that St. Augustine had been made to “bear the cross,” suffering violence and brutality that helped prompt Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Colburn, 113).