MLK’s Last March for the Civil Rights Act of 1964: 60 Years Later

As we reflect on the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we must remember our forebears and their fight for freedom.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his last stand in the fight for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in St. Augustine, Florida, weeks before the landmark legislation was signed into law.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, and national origin, was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, marking the culmination of years of relentless activism by Black civil rights leaders.

King was drawn to the St. Augustine demonstrations by Dr. Robert Hayling, a local dentist, and leader of the NAACP Youth Council. Hayling was a leading figure in the St. Augustine Movement. In 1963, St. Augustine, a city with a population of 15,000, including 3,500 Black residents, requested $350,000 from the Kennedy White House in support of quadricentennial celebrations. The local NAACP urged the administration to deny the funding due to the city’s segregationist practices.

In July, Dr. Hayling intensified the protests, including one at a local Woolworth’s lunch counter, where four Black youths, known as the St. Augustine Four, were arrested on July 18, 1963, for sitting in a “whites only” section: JoeAnn Anderson, Audrey Nell Edwards, Willie Carl Singleton, and Samuel White were detained in reform schools for six months after refusing plea deals to cease their activism. They refused to be complicit in the suppression of free speech.

Demonstrations persisted through Labor Day, following the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dr. Hayling and other local leaders faced vicious attacks by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and local authorities. When he was threatened with a criminal conviction, Hayling was dismissed from the NAACP.

After the August march, President John Kennedy faced mounting pressure nationally to propose federal civil rights legislation. His assassination on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, propelled Vice President Lyndon Johnson into the presidency. In his January 1964 State of the Union address, President Johnson urged Congress for immediate action to pass a civil rights bill, and announced his “War on Poverty” campaign.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville NAACP attorney Earl M. Johnson’s efforts to release the St. Augustine Four initially failed, but he garnered national attention from major figures like Jackie Robinson. This led to intervention by Gov. C. Farris Bryant and the Florida Legislature, securing the youths’ release in January 1964.

Early in 1964, organizers led marches to the city’s Old Slave Market, the plaza where Black Africans were brought to Florida by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century, in a symbolic stand challenging segregationist practices. Dr. Hayling called for support in challenging racism in public practice from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), including Andrew Young.

In March 1964, Mary Elizabeth Peabody, an activist and mother of incumbent Massachusetts Gov. Endicott Peabody, was arrested at the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge while protesting with Hayling. This led to an overnight stay at the St. Johns County jail. News of the arrest of an elderly white relative of a prominent Northeast politician by deputies was credited for focusing national attention on the de jure racism in America’s oldest modern settlement, and for discouraging tourism to the city immediately thereafter.

By May 1964, racially integrated demonstrations escalated to wade-ins at local pools, beaches, and other public places. The SCLC recruited progressive white college students from the Northeast to come down to Florida to join the protests. The clashes between protesters and local authorities continued into mid-year, as civil rights legislation moved through and stalled in Congress. Hayling, Dr. King, and Rev. Young continued demonstrations to sustain national media attention.

Dr. King was arrested on June 11, 1964 at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, for attempting to integrate a restaurant. King’s arrest occurred a day after the Senate voted to end a filibuster that stalled the passage of the Civil Rights Act. From the St. Johns County jail, he penned his “Letter from the St. Augustine Jail,” urging the Jewish community in New Jersey to join the fight against oppression in St. Augustine.

There will be neither peace nor tranquility in this community until the righteous demands of the Negro are fully met.
Dr. King and Dr. Hayling, June 18, 1964

On June 18, 1964, more than a dozen Jewish rabbis were arrested while holding a vigil at the Monson Motor Lodge. That same day, protesters attempted to integrate a pool, prompting the management to pour acid into it. The rabbis and protesters were all hauled off to the St. Johns County jail.

Gov. Bryant’s attempts to ban protests failed, and days later, an integrated wade-in was held at a whites-only beach. On June 30, 1964, he established a biracial commission to address the unrest. The following day, SCLC organizers left St. Augustine.

Dr. King, along with other dignitaries, stood behind President Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law on Thursday, July 2, 1964. By the end of July, the Monson Motor Lodge, along with other St. Augustine “whites only” establishments, desegregated.

The impact of the Civil Rights Act was immutable. It made it illegal, under federal law, to deny anyone employment or access to public accommodations based on race, color, gender, religion, or national origin.

This signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the beginning of a slew of civil rights legislation championed by President Johnson. This included the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Great Society programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, better known as the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act was signed into law a week after the assassination of Dr. King and in the wake of the release of the widely praised Kerner Commission report on civil disturbances.

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, Barack Obama, who would become America’s first Black president in 2008, was barely three years old, and his future wife, Michelle Robinson, was only six months old. The country they would inherit would be significantly more open and inclusive than the one their parents experienced.

Yet in 2024, we are seeing efforts to censor this very history in Florida. The “Stop W.O.K.E.” Act, signed into law in 2022, is a classroom censorship law that severely restricts Florida educators and students from learning and discussing issues related to race and gender in higher education classrooms. While it is permanently blocked by court order, we know that we must remain committed to fighting against policies that censor Black history.

The efforts of freedom fighters like Dr. Hayling, supported by stalwarts like Dr. King in St. Augustine, exposed the deleterious effects of segregation, and underscored the necessity of ending it once and for all. They also set an example of what it means to advocate for freedom.

As we reflect on the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we must remember our forebears and their fight for freedom. We must protect their legacy. We must defend the rights of others. We must continue the work to make this country a place where everyone is free to pursue the constitutional promise of life, liberty, and justice.