St. Augustine, Fla. — (JTA) — For Rabbi Richard Levy, it was an emotional return to this historic northeastern Florida city.
The first time Levy came to St. Augustine 50 years ago, he and 15 other rabbis and a Reform Jewish leader endured taunts from segregationists armed with broken bottles and bricks. They were jailed along with other civil rights activists after taking part in protests at a segregated motel.
“As I came here and saw the sign that said St. Augustine, I was stunned,” the Los Angeles resident told a standing room only crowd of over 250 people at Flagler College. “I never thought I would come back here.”
The rabbis’ June 18, 1964 pray-in outside the Monson Motor Lodge and Restaurant served as a decoy maneuver for other black and white demonstrators who jumped together into the motel’s segregated pool. Police responded forcefully.
Associated Press photos of the angry motel owner pouring acid into the water and of a fully clothed police officer jumping in to haul out the protesters were splashed across newspapers the next day as the U.S. Senate voted to approve the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Levy was speaking on the 50th anniversary of those events. Of the 17 members of the Reform delegation who were arrested that day, eight are still alive. Levy and five others returned to St. Augustine for commemorative events titled “Justice, Justice 1964” that were organized by the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society.
The rabbis had come to St. Augustine a half-century ago at the invitation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose Southern Christian Leadership Conference was working with students and activists to fight Jim Crow segregation in the city.
A focal point for the protests was the 400th anniversary celebrations of the city’s founding by the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez. Blacks had been excluded from the committee that planned the federally funded commemorations.
Media coverage of the ongoing St. Augustine protests and the violent resistance to them by segregationists had put pressure on Congress when the Civil Rights Act was facing a filibuster.
A week before the rabbis’ protest, King himself had been arrested outside the Monson Motor Lodge. King penned a letter from jail to his friend and supporter Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey asking for help.
“We need you down here with as many Rabbis as you can bring with you!” he wrote. The rabbis came directly from the Central Conference of Rabbis meeting in Atlantic City, N.J., where Dresner read the message from King.