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Educator reflects on father’s work with MLK in segregated St. Augustine

Earl Johnson Jr.’s father was Martin Luther King Jr.’s attorney in Florida during Civil Rights era

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s example of non-violent protest still resonates around the world.

In 1964, King put those principles to the test in Northeast Florida when he and other activists were arrested for attempting to eat at a whites-only restaurant at the Monson Motor Lodge in downtown St. Augustine.

Civil Rights demonstrators responded to King’s arrest by jumping into a segregated pool at the hotel. Images of the owner pouring acid into the pool sparked outrage and helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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Wednesday will mark 50 years exactly since the Monson Motor Lodge incident credited for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

News4Jax spoke with educator Dr. Earl Johnson Jr. about the role his father played working as King’s attorney in Florida during the Civil Rights movement.

RELATED: A look back at the extraordinary life of Martin Luther King Jr., in photos

“He was Dr. King’s only lawyer in Florida. So, when Dr. King [and others] all met at my parents’ house here in Jacksonville in 1963, the purpose was to organize and strategize with regards to marches in St. Augustine,” Johnson Jr. said. “St. Augustine was one of the most segregated places in America, just replete with white supremacist organizations running throughout its government. And so that’s why Dr. King came to this area in the first place and ultimately my father counseled Dr. King and others and represented Dr. King in court in St. Augustine and in Jacksonville, gaining his release and dozens of others -- peaceful protesters who had been arrested during that time.”

Johnson said his father integrated the courtrooms in Jacksonville.

“My father was the first Black member of the Jacksonville Bar Association,” Johnson said. “He became an attorney during the time when judges would use the N-word from the bench when Black people were relegated to certain parts of the courtroom, where Black attorneys were not even allowed to sit where white attorneys sat.”

Johnson said it’s an honor to be a part of King’s legacy in this way, knowing his father played a key role in fighting for civil rights.

Johnson, who founded TakeItDown.org, urges people to use Martin Luther King Jr. Day to make the lives of those around you better and take part in acts of public service.

“MLK Day is a wonderful day of service. It’s one of the largest days of service in America. Dr. King said everyone can lead because everyone can serve. That’s why I began my nonprofit,” Johnson said. “It is the only nonprofit solely focused on the removal and relocation of Confederate monuments, honorariums from public land in America.”

Johnson’s hope is not to erase the past but to recognize the challenging journey African-Americans still face in living out King’s dream.

There’s always work to be done,” Johnson said. “Whether it is helping out with your local school, whether it is mentoring a child, whether it’s starting a nonprofit organization, we all have a part to play in ending racism, in ending sexism.”

Johnson said that is the way everyone can truly honor King’s legacy.


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