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Chapter 22: St. Augustine

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

The bill now pending in Congress is the child of a storm, the product of the most turbulent motion the nation has ever known in peacetime.

  • February 9, 1964 Segregationist violence prompts St. Augustine, Florida, civil rights leader Robert HayIing to invite SCLC to join struggle
  • May 28 After the jailing of hundreds of demonstrators in St. Augustine, King appeals for outside assistance
  • June 11 After King's arrest in St. Augustine, bi-racist committee is formed
  • JUNE Why We Can't Wait is published  
  • JULY 2 Attends the signing of Civil Rights Act of 1964

When 1963 came to a close, more than a few skeptical voices asked what substantial progress had been achieved through the demonstrations that had drawn more than a million Negroes into the streets. By the close of 1964, the pessimistic clamor was stilled by the music of major victories. Taken together, the two years marked a historical turning point for the civil rights movement; in the previous century no comparable change for the Negro had occurred. Now, even the most cynical acknowledged that at Birmingham, as at Concord, a shot had been fired that was heard around the world.

In the bursting mood that had overtaken the Negro, the words `compromise" and "retreat" were profane and pernicious. Our revolution was genuine because it was born from the same womb that always gives birth to massive social upheavals-the womb of intolerable conditions and unendurable situations. The Negro was determined to liberate himself. His cry for justice had hardened into a palpable, irresistible force. He was unwilling to retrogress or even mark time. 

The mainstay of the SCLC program was still in the area of nonviolent direct action. Our feeling was that this method, more than any ether, was the best way to raise the problems of the Negro people and the injustices of our social order before the court of world opinion, and to require action.

Four Hundred Years of Bigotry and Hate

St. Augustine, Florida, a beautiful town and our nation's oldest city, was the scene of raging tempers, flaring violence, and the most corrupt coalition of segregationist opposition outside of Mississippi. It was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. There the Klan made a lastditch stand against the nonviolent movement. They flocked to St. Augustine's Slave Market Plaza from all across north Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Klansmen abducted four Negroes and beat them unconscious with clubs, ax handles, and pistol butts. 

Florida responded out of a concern for its tourist trade. But when Governor Bryant realized that justice was the price to be paid for a good image, he resorted to the Old South line of attempting to crush those seeking their constitutional rights. Only Judge Bryan Simpson of the federal district court, a Republican appointee, proved to be free enough of the "system" to preserve constitutional rights for St. Augustine's Negroes. 

SCLC came to St. Augustine at the request of the local unit which was seeking: (1) a biracial committee; (2) desegregation of public accommodations; (3) hiring of policemen, firemen, and office workers in municipal jobs; and (4) dropping of charges against persons peacefully protesting for their constitutional rights. 

St. Augustine was a testing ground. Can the Deep South change?

Could southern states maintain law and order in the face of change? Could local citizens, black and white, work together to make democracy a reality throughout America? These were the questions the nonviolent movement sought to answer with a resounding: "Yes God willing!" 

Once in St. Augustine, SCLC uncovered a sore of hatred, violence, and ignorance which spread its venom throughout the business and political life of Florida and reached subtly into the White House. St. Augustine's 3,700 Negro citizens waged a heroic campaign in the midst of savage violence and brutality condoned and committed by police. We faced some lawlessness and violence that we hadn't faced before, even in Birmingham. Night after night, Negroes marched by the hundreds amidst showers of bricks, bottles, and insults. Day by day, Negroes confronted restaurants, beaches, and the Slave Market where they spoke and sang of their determination to be free. 

After several months of raging violence in America's oldest city, in which more than three hundred SCLC-led demonstrators were arrested and scores of others injured by Klansmen wielding tire chains and other weapons, we were able to proclaim a relative victory in that rock-bound bastion of segregation and discrimination. 

In combination with the local defense fund, we began to pave the way for compliance with the civil rights bill and rush through its passage. The legal and action strategies together had given us a body of precedent for dealing with hard-core communities who allowed vigilante mobs to preserve the Old South traditions.

We communicated with state and federal officials concerning conditions in St. Augustine. After tireless efforts, we succeeded in getting the governor of the state to persuade four distinguished citizens of St. Augustine to serve on a biracial committee to discuss ways to solve the racial problems of St. Augustine. In order to demonstrate our good faith, and show that we were not seeking to wreck St. Augustine, as some mistakenly believed, we agreed to call off demonstrations while the committee sought to work out a settlement. As the saying goes, "Every thousand-mile journey begins with the first step." This development was merely the first step in a long journey toward freedom and justice in St. Augustine, but it was an important first step, for it at least opened the channels of communication - something that St. Augustine had needed for so long.

When we left St. Augustine, we were about to get a civil rights bill that would become the law of the land. The Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson two days before the Fourth of July. The businessmen in St. Augustine said before we left that they would comply with the civil rights bill, and we were very happy about this. It represented a degree of progress, and I said to myself maybe St. Augustine is now coming to terms with its conscience.

A legislative achievement of rare quality

Both houses of Congress approved a monumental, indeed, historic affirmation of Jefferson's ringing truth that "all men are created equal." First recommended and promoted by President Kennedy, this bill was passed because of the overwhelming support and perseverance of millions of Americans, Negro and white. It came as a bright interlude in the long and sometimes turbulent struggle for civil rights: the beginning of a second emancipation proclamation providing a comprehensive legal basis for equality of opportunity.

With the bill's passage, we stood at an auspicious position, a momentous time for thanksgiving and rededication, rather than intoxication and relaxation. The bill was born of the "blood, sweat, toil, and tears" of countless congressmen of both major parties, legions of amateur lobbyists, and great volumes of grassroots sentiment. Supporters, black and white, did themselves honor as they sowed the seeds of protest and political persuasion, reaping this glorious harvest in law. Furthermore, the bill's germination could be traced to the Negro revolt of 1963, epitomized in Birmingham's fire hoses, police dogs, and thousands of "not-to-be-denied" demonstrations; to the massive militancy of the majestic March on Washington; to a martyred President; to his successor, a Southern-sired President who carried on and enhanced the Kennedy legacy; and to the memories of bygone martyrs whose blood was shed so that America might find remission for her sins of segregation. I had been fortunate enough to meet Lyndon Johnson during his tenure as vice president. He was not then a presidential aspirant, and he was searching for his role under a man who not only had a four year term to complete but was confidently expected to serve out yet another term as chief executive. Therefore, the essential issues were easier to reach, and were unclouded by political considerations. 

His approach to the problem of civil rights was not identical with mine-nor had I expected it to be. Yet his careful practicality was nonetheless clearly no mask to conceal indifference. His emotional and intellectual involvement were genuine and devoid of adornment. It was conspicuous that he was searching for a solution to a problem he knew to be a major shortcoming in American life. I came away strengthened in my conviction that an undifferentiated approach to white Southerners could be a grave error, all too easy for Negro leaders in the heat of bitterness. Later, it was Vice President Johnson I had in mind when I wrote in The Nation that the white South was splitting, and that progress could be furthered by j driving a wedge between the rigid segregationists and the new white elements whose love of their land was stronger than the grip of old habits and customs. 

The dimensions of Johnson's leadership spread from a region to a nation. His expressions, public and private, indicated that he had a comprehensive grasp of contemporary problems. He saw that poverty and unemployment were grave and growing catastrophes, and he was aware that those caught most fiercely in the grip of this economic holocaust were Negroes. Therefore, he had set the twin goal of a battle against discrimination within the war on poverty. 

I had no doubt that we might continue to differ concerning the tempo and the tactical design required to combat the impending crisis. But I did not doubt that the President was approaching the solution with sincerity, with realism, and thus far with wisdom. I hoped his course would be straight and true. I would do everything in my power to make it so by outspoken agreement whenever proper, and determined opposition whenever necessary. 

I had the good fortune of standing there with President Johnson when he signed that bill. Certainly one of the things that I will hold among my most cherished possessions is the pen that President Johnson used to sign this bill. It was a great moment. The legislature had joined the judiciary's long line of decisions invalidating state-compelled segregation, and the office of the President with its great tradition of executive actions, including Lincoln's Emancipation

Proclamation, Roosevelt's war decree banning employment discrimination, Truman's mandate ending segregated Armed Forces units and Kennedy's order banning discrimination in federally aided housing.

Legislation was first written in the streets

Would the slower processes of legislation and law enforcement ultimately have accomplished greater results more painlessly? Demonstrations, experience has shown, are part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal government reacts to events more quickly when a situation of conflict cries out for its intervention. Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process. Those who have lived under the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and dignity that strengthen their personalities. Through demonstrations, Negroes learn that unity and mils tance have more force than bullets. They find that the bruises of clubs, electric cattle prods, and fists hurt less than the scars of submission. And segregationists learn from demonstrations that Negroes who have been taught to fear can also be taught to be fearless. Finally, the millions of Americans on the sidelines learn that inhumanity wears an official badge and wields the power of law in large areas of the democratic nation of their pride. 

What specifically did we accomplish in 1963-64? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is important even beyond its far-reaching provisions. It is historic because its enhancement was generated by a massive coalition of white and Negro forces. Congress was aroused from a century of slumber to a legislative achievement of rare quality These multitudinous sponsors to its enactment explain why sections' of the Civil Rights Act were complied with so hastily even in some hard-core centers of the South. 

The Civil Rights Act was expected by many to suffer the fate of the Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation. In particular, it was thought that the issue of public accommodations would encounter massive defiance. But this pessimism overlooked a factor of supreme importance. The legislation was not a product of the charity of white America for a supine black America, nor was it the result of enlightened leadership by the judiciary. This legislation was first written in the streets. The epic thrust of the millions of Negroes who demonstrated in 1963 in hundreds of cities won strong white allies to the cause. Together they created a "coalition of conscience" which awoke a hitherto somnolent Congress. The legislation was polished and refined in the marble halls of Congress, but the vivid marks of its origin in the turmoil of mass meetings and marches were on it, and the vigor and momentum of its turbulent birth carried past the voting and insured substantial compliance. 

Apart from its own provisions, the new law stimulated and focused attention on economic needs. An assault on poverty was planned. The fusing of economic measures with civil rights needs; the boldness to penetrate every region of the Old South; and the undergirding of the whole by the massive Negro vote, both North and South, all placed the freedom struggle on a new elevated level.

NEXT: Chapter 23: The Mississippi Challenge