By Douglas C. Lyons
Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. The world lost a true leader, a leader and an American icon.
Let us not forget King’s time in Florida. In 1964, he organized a protest in America’s oldest city — St. Augustine — during the city’s celebration of its 400 anniversary. What they found, as described in the book, To the Mountaintop by W. Roger Witherspoon, was a battle zone.
“St. Augustine was worse than Mississippi in many ways,” said Rev. C.T. Vivian, a King lieutenant. “They used guns, chains, lead pipes — the whole works — on black people there.”
A series of night marches by blacks to the city’s Slave Market in downtown St. Augustine ended in violence. Not only did the police decline to help the marchers, many of them participated in the attacks.
“The police force and the Klan were the same thing,” Vivian said. “Guys who would be beating you in the morning, you would see over at the jail later as deputies.”
Fortunately, the campaign had a happier ending. A federal judge ultimately ruled in favor of the black demonstrators, and the protest ultimately helped move the 1964 Civil Rights Act closer to passage. Today, tourists can celebrate the efforts of the civil rights foot soldiers at a memorial in the city’s famed historic district.
Douglas C. Lyons is the founder of www.blackinfla.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Florida Memory State Libraries and Archives of Florida