The story of the arrests of sixteen Rabbis and one administrator responding to the call of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in St Augustine on June 18, 1964, is not as well-known as it should be, according to Carol Rovinsky who chairs the Justice 1964 Committee of the St Augustine Jewish Historical Society.
A copy of the original letter written by those men from their cell in the St Johns County Jail, has been included in the “Journey: 450 Years of the African American Experience” exhibit; now on display at the Visitor Information Center and free to St Augustine area residents, with identification.
“While much has changed, much has not,” Shapiro told Historic City News. “There are no African-Americans on St Augustine’s police force, and only one firefighter. Barriers continue to be placed in the path of people of color who wish to vote. No African-Americans sit on the city commission, none on the County Board of Commissioners, none on the local school board.”
In the spring of 1964, as St Augustine was preparing to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its founding, the United States Senate was considering the Civil Rights Act. With the intention of keeping civil rights on the front page, Reverend King decided to launch a massive campaign to end segregation in St Augustine, knowing it would receive national media attention.
King knew that St Augustine would be a challenge; so, he called the Central Conference of American Rabbis and upon his friend and supporter, Rabbi Israel Dresner. “We need you down here — with as many Rabbis as you can bring with you,” King told the Rabbi.
Sixteen Rabbis and the director of Social Action for Reform Judaism came to St Augustine and, early on the morning of June 18, 1964; they found themselves sitting in the pews of St Paul’s AME Church.
From the pulpit, Reverend King directed the crowd to march to the waterfront, then north to the Monson Motor Lodge and Chimes Restaurant, to integrate restaurants and the Monson swimming pool. By early afternoon, the 17 Jews had been placed under arrest and were taken to the St Johns County Jail where they were booked and thrown into a cell.
“We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves, and our God,” Dresner wrote. “In obeying Him, we become ourselves in following Him will we fulfill ourselves. He has guided, sustained and strengthened us in a way we could not manage on our own.”
The St Augustine Jewish Historical Society, in part through a grant from the Florida Council on Humanities and the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, invite all those to whom justice matters, to join them to celebrate those arrested 50 years ago and participate in a re-dedication to the cause of social justice being held this summer. Those who are still alive among the arrested are invited to return and relive those fateful days, half-a-century ago.