On This Day: June 16, 1964 — Sixteen Rabbis are arrested and jailed in St. Augustine, Florida as they protested with Negro protestors, along with Martin Luther King Jr.
Place: St. Augustine, Florida — An American Vacation Spot: New York Times described St. Augustine as a place of “magic waters,” “moss-draped live oak trees,” and “butter pecan milkshakes.” 1
St. Augustine became one of the most famous locations of the American civil rights movement’s most perilous protests (along with Montogomery, Selma, and Birmingham).1
Early in June of 1964, MLK “had accepted an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.” 1
Sixteen reform (a theological term) rabbis joined the protest in St. Augustine.
They were invited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who while in jail himself sent them a telegram urging them to join him . . . .
to bear “prophetic witness against the social evils of our time” and requested “that a delegation of the CCAR’s rabbis venture south,” emphasizing that “some 30 or so rabbis would make a tremendous impact on this community and the nation.” 1
The sixteen rabbis responded within hours of receiving King’s request.
They knew that they would be probably be arrested and imprisoned along with their fellow African-American protestors and King.
Realized that they might indeed die.
“I (Rabbi Samuel Soskin, chairman of CCAR’s Committee on Justice and Peace) will remind you men and women here that these men are going down with full knowledge that, perhaps, there may be violence, and … ken ger harget varen.” In Yiddish: They could be killed.” 1
“It was the first time in my life that I had to confront the fact that I might be facing death,” — Rabbi Richard Levy 1
The First Baptist Church of St. Augustine was the unofficial headquarters of the protestors.
• Bottles, bricks, firecrackers, and acid were thrown at the protesters.
• Even the various media outlets which were covering the marches hired bodyguards. because of the level of violence.
• The local police departments did little to stop or limit the activities against the protestors.1
Andrew Young, — “St. Augustine is really worse than Birmingham. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.” 1
The Monson Hotel & Resturant (and swimming pool) was the focal point of the protest.
Seven protestors “jumped into the establishment’s segregated swimming pool. [James] Brock (the hotel manager) grabbed a two-gallon jug of muriatic acid, a cleaning solution, and began pouring it into the water.” 1
They were arrested and imprisoned overnight in St. John’s County Jail — June 18, 1964.
“The rabbis were squeezed into a 15-by-20-foot jail cell, meant to hold six. The cell held a couple decrepit mattresses, a table, an open toilet, a sink, and a single shower head to keep them cool in the sweltering heat. Many of the rabbis stripped down to their underwear.” 1
The arrest became what was believed to be “the largest mass arrest of rabbis in American history.” 1
Other rabbis and Jewish merchants chided and rebuked the rabbis for joining King.
The sixteen Rabbis wrote a “Joint Manifesto” titled — “Why We Went” — here are some of the reasons.
“We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us.”
“We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood.”
“We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”
“[W]e must confess in all humility that we did this as much in fulfillment of our faith and in response to inner need as in service to our Negro brothers. We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God”
“Each of us has in this experience become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be.”
In “the battle against racism, we have participated here in only a skirmish.”
“[T]he total effect of all such demonstrations has created a Revolution; and the conscience of the nation has been aroused as never before. The Civil Rights Bill will become law and much more progress will be attained because this national conscience has been touched in this and other places in the struggle.”
“Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who freest the captives.” –(a typical Jewish prayer)
“Why We Went” can be summed up in one word . . . .
We are you!
We are able to see you as ourselves.
To allow this and not see that this is about all men, would be short-sighted.
This is about the treatment of all men.
No one is exempt if this is allowed to stand.
“injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us.”
Key Illustrative Thoughts:
• in it together
• identifying with others
• civil rights
• the cruelty of humanity
• Martin Luther King Jr.
• Golden Rule
• love one another
• Christian love
• Good Samaritan
• no hesitation
• pain of injustice
• the abortion fight
• something greater than ourselves
• standing up / being a voice
• them is us / us is them
Other Information & Links:
Background: “In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy introduced federal legislation that would ultimately become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark legislation that ended segregation in public places and outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 1
The Final Draft Of Their Three Page Letter (PDF):
The Underlying Original Document — “Why-We-Went”