Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined push to end racial discrimination in nation’s oldest city

In 1964, the city of St. Augustine was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary. That same year, in a bid to rally support for the Civil Rights Act, which had stalled in Congress, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the push to end racial discrimination in the nation’s oldest city.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – In 1964, the city of St. Augustine was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary. That same year, in a bid to rally support for the Civil Rights Act, which had stalled in Congress, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the push to end racial discrimination in the nation’s oldest city.

King and his legacy are deeply tied to what he did and where he went in St. Augustine that summer.

Dr. Robert B. Hayling, considered the father of St. Augustine’s civil rights movement, had convinced King to come to the city. Hayling’s office on Bridge Street became a headquarters of sorts. It’s now the Accord Civil Rights Museum.

While King was here, he participated in a protest to further advance the fight for equality. He was arrested for attempting to take part in a sit-in at what used to be the segregated Monson Motor Lodge, which is now the Bayfront Hilton in downtown St. Augustine. The steps where King was arrested are still there, along with a plaque.

The nations oldest city, but in 1964 Martin Luther King Junior called it the most lawless city he had seen. The city of St. Augustine became a key battleground in the fight to end racial discrimination.

King was taken to St. Johns County Jail. A photo of his fingerprints is now on display in the Florida House chambers. His case would eventually go before a grand jury at the federal courthouse in Jacksonville, where a judge ruled in his favor.

A week after his arrest, another group of protesters held a swim-in at the hotel.

On June 18, 1964, the Monson Motor Lodge Hotel’s manager was captured on camera pouring acid into the pool. The image shocked the country. The demonstrators weren’t hurt by the acid, but many were arrested and their actions struck a chord, and the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the next day.

King was still in St. Augustine when he got the news and took a picture flashing a peace sign.

While he was in St. Augustine, King stayed at several different places for his safety. One of them was a beachfront cottage on Atlantic View. It was targeted by people who apparently thought King was staying there, but he was not.

A couple purchased the property last year with plans to renovate and preserve the home’s historic significance that includes a bullet hole still in one of the door frames.

The attack on King’s life was not the last.

Four years after his summer in St. Augustine, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

His words and actions changed the nation, and he is remembered with acts of service to the community on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

St. Augustine is best known as the nation's oldest city -- but in 1964 -- Martin Luther King Junior called it the most lawless city he had seen.

About the Author:

This native of the Big Apple joined the News4Jax team in July 2021.