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St. Augustine's Civil Rights Movement

Local and National Background

Through most of the southern United States, beginning in the latter part of the 19th century and becoming the entrenched law of the land by the early years of the 20th century, segregation by race was the legal system. That is, by law, blacks and whites were separated in all public facilities. Blacks could not eat in restaurants, stay in hotels or motels, swim in public beaches or pools, or attend the same schools or churches if any of these facilities or institutions were used by white people. In St. Augustine, a black person could not get a drink of water from a public fountain or use the restrooms in public facilities. Although they could purchase goods from the local stores, they could not sit at the lunch counter and order food in the same store. State and local police forces as well as the courts of the state were all required to uphold and enforce these laws. Educational and job opportunities- although the law did not require it-were restricted on the basis of race.

In 1954, The Supreme Court of the United States declared that the "separate but equal" legal status of public schools made those schools inherently unequal and ordered the desegregation of all public schools in the United States. In St. Augustine, by 1964 — ten years later — only 6 black children had been admitted to white schools, and the homes of two of the families of these children had been burned by local segregationists and other families had been forced to move out of the county because the parents had been fired from their jobs and could find no work.

In the spring of 1964, a major Civil Rights Bill was pending in the United States Senate. This bill — if made into law — would outlaw all segregation on the basis of race in all public facilities. That is, if the facility, such as restaurants, hotels, beaches, buses, trains, restrooms, etc, were open to public use, no one could be denied the right to use it on the basis of race. Major civil rights demonstrations in many southern cities had convinced most Americans that the laws of segregation violated the constitution of the United States and were morally wrong. The house of Representatives had passed the Civil Rights Bill on February 10, 1964, and a majority of senators had declared they would vote in favor. A group of senators from southern states began a filibuster — a non-stop speech preventing any action on any bill from taking place. Senate rules require a 2/3rds vote to halt a filibuster. There were not enough Senators willing to do so. Teams of Senators had kept the speech going for months. The Civil Rights movement seemed stalled, hopes for the passage of this bill began to dim.  It was in that atmosphere that demonstrations in St. Augustine played a major role in securing the needed votes to stop the filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Bill.