- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) - When Martin Luther King Jr., came to St. Augustine in the 1960s, he was looking to keep the momentum alive for passage of the Civil Rights Act.

He and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference members were looking for a community with an active civil rights movement, said David Colburn, a University of Florida history professor.

“They were also looking for a community that was symbolic in some way, and St. Augustine fit the bill,” he said.

It was 1964, and in the wake of demonstrations and brutality in Birmingham, Ala., there was some talk that King would go to Washington, D.C. His concern was about violence erupting there and the possibility of disrupting legislators. That would be counterproductive to the goal.

So when Robert Hayling, a leader of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, reached out to the SCLC for help in response to violence, officials responded. What met them was brutal violence, and what they found was a town ripe for change.

“They’d throw rocks at us and bricks at us and everything downtown,” said J.T. Johnson of Atlanta, an SCLC member who in 1964 jumped into the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge.

“People were very cruel in St. Augustine,” he said.

 After King arrived in St. Augustine, demonstrations followed that are credited with helping the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

St. Augustine was thrust into the national spotlight.

Why St. Augustine was the focal point of leaders in a crucial time was partly strategy. Leaders found an active movement here and knew what took place would grab the attention of the national media.

The city’s 400th anniversary played a role, if nothing else for symbolism: It was the oldest city in the nation, and also the oldest segregated city.

Demonstrations had already been taking place since the ‘50s by the time King arrived, Colburn said.

“We didn’t start the movement,” Johnson said.

A couple of men were major figures in St. Augustine’s movement.

The Rev. Thomas Wright, who graduated from Florida Memorial College, was part of reorganizing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was its president, according to information from the exhibit, “Journey: 450 Years of the African-American Experience Exhibition” at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center.

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