Arrested rabbis and civil rights demonstrators return to St. Augustine

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of one of the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The largest mass arrest of rabbis in U-S history took place June 18,, 1964 in happened in St. Augustine.

It was also the day a photo from a civil rights demonstration traveled around the world. It's of acid being poured into a segregated swimming pool with black demonstrators inside it.

50 years later, 6 of the 16 rabbis who were arrested returned to St. Augustine along with one of the demonstrators who jumped into the swimming pool.

Justice, Justice 1964 and the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society made the journey back to St. Augustine happen.

The day started with singing and prayers on the St. Augustine bayfront, led by a rabbi.

Other rabbis, their loved ones, demonstrators and locals of different faiths and colors came together Wednesday morning and wrapped up prayer gathering by singing "We Shall Overcome."

Rabbi Alan Secher was one of the 16 rabbis who came from across the country to St. Augustine in 1964 when Dr. Martin Luther King asked them to help with the Civil Rights movement.

Secher returned this week for the first time since then.

"It has been incredibly emotional," he said.

Secher remembered marching at night on June 17, 1964 in St. Augustine. He said he was paired with a black woman in her 20's. "And the instruction was: hold hands sing songs," he recalled. "That was the scariest two hours of my life!"

A demonstrator had just recently been shot, he said.

The next day some of the rabbis also went to pray at the Monson Motor Lodge.

"I was in the parking lot," Secher recalled.

That's also when seven other demonstrators jumped into the segregated motel swimming pool at the Monson Motor Lodge.

JT Johnson of Harlem had traveled to St. Augustine to demonstrate as well. The young black man at the time was one of those who jumped into the pool. Johnson remembers the motel owner, James Brock, pouring muriatic acid into the pool with the demonstrators still inside.

"I thought this was a rude man when he was doing something like that," Johnson said.

Secher noted, "We could see Brock pouring the muriatic acid."

Johson said, "It didn't scare us, but the ladies got a little nervous. We got them together and tried to convince them we'd be ok. We didn't know for sure. But that's what we told them."

Of that incident, Secher said Wednesday, "I witnessed the most courageous acts I'd ever seen of those seven kids not leaving the pool."

Johnson, fellow demonstrators, along with the 16 rabbis were all arrested and taken to the St. Johns County Jail.

Wednesday, the rabbis boarded a trolley to see St. Augustine 50 years later.

The tour guide, historian David Nolan, took them on a Civil Rights history tour, which included a ride to the jail.

The rabbis and Johnson met with a representative of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office. The rabbis also sang just like they did 5 decades ago there.

The tour then took the rabbis and Johnson to St. Paul AME Church where a meal had been prepared in part by Cora Tyson. She prepared food for Dr. King when he was in St. Augustine in the 1960's.

Rabbis, demonstrators, visitors, and locals packed the fellowship hall Wednesday for lunch. They drank King's favorite iced tea, and remembered the day 50 years ago. It was the day that changed their lives and many others across the country. The AP photo of the swimming pool incident spread across the world… ultimately leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Johnson just shook his head and said, "It was something else!"

Secher explained why he went to St. Augustine in 1964. He said he endured prejudice in the form of antisemitism while growing up.

He simply said, "I went because I couldn't not go."


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