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Family of infamous 'swim-in' protester visit site of acid attack

The photograph of the hotel’s owner throwing acid at protesters in the pool put St. Augustine in the national spotlight during the Civil Rights movement.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Just after noon on June 18,1964, an interracial group of Civil Rights protesters jumped over a low chain fence and into the Monson Motor Lodge pool.
The motel’s owner, avowed segregationist Jimmy Brock, arrived moments later, furiously dumping muriatic acid into the pool to force them out.

Photos of the incident put St. Augustine’s increasingly incendiary Civil Rights movement on the front page of newspapers nationally, and the searing image helped propel passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination in public places.

Thursday, the daughter and grandson of one of those protesters, Brenda Darten, were guests of the former motel, now the Bayfront Hilton.

"I didn't sleep well last night, kind of tossing and turning, just thinking about the whole incident," said Darten's daughter Cheryl Jones. "But I'm happy that I'm here, very happy to be here, so that I can see the sacrifice in person. Because she was very quiet about it."

City historian David Nolan, who joined the family at the site of the protest, says the demonstration at the whites-only pool was pivotal.

"From that point, history was made," Nolan said in an earlier interview. "The manager of the hotel redefined Southern hospitality by grabbing that acid and pouring it into the pool."

Two other Black protesters, John “J.T.” Johnson and Mamie Nell Ford (who later went by Mimi Jones) came down from Albany, Ga. All three were arrested, along with several white protesters and 16 rabbis who responded to Dr. King’s call to help with the Civil Rights movement. 

King was also arrested trying to integrate the Monson – the only time he was arrested in Florida. He would later call St. Augustine the "most lawless" place he’d ever campaigned.

“The photograph of that [incident] was the most famous photograph ever taken in St. Augustine," Nolan said. "And that picture ran on the front page of the Washington D.C. newspaper the day the Senate went to vote on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So if there were any wavering votes at all, they just had to look at that horrible picture in the paper and say, 'This is not the America we want. We must pass that law!'”

Both Darten and Jones are deceased. Johnson continued to work with Dr. King until his assassination in 1968. He went on to found the antiracist foundation Take2America Foundation in Atlanta, Ga. 

Darten’s daughter and grandson Jonathan Darten were in St. Augustine for the 100th birthday celebration of Cora Tyson, who hosted the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights luminaries into her Lincolnville home at the height local protests.

The ACCORD Freedom Trail, which marks sites in St. Augustine civil rights history, calls Tyson's home as "a gathering place for people in the movement, where they could meet, rest, seek solace and get something to eat, courtesy of Mrs. Cora Tyson.”

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