Article — From the January 1965 issue

Anarchy in St. Augustine

( 5 of 6 )

strange fruit

At 6:30 Confederate banners flapped gently under giant palms in the slave market as the “White Citizens Rally” got under way. Klan organizer Connie Lynch spoke: “If it takes violence to preserve the Constitution, I say all right. I favor violence to preserve the white race anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Now it may be some niggers are gonna get killed in the process, but when war’s on, that’s what happens.”

Other Southerners, black and white, played out their roles. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth — battle-scarred founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which had clashed with Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Birmingham — led his ranks of Negro marchers slowly up the side of the plaza. His thin column of twos marched past motionless police into a narrowing tunnel of five hundred whites rimming both sides of the streets.

Then waves of whites poured into the street and the Negro line collapsed under the pounding of clenched fists. A teen-age Negro, his head bleeding, dashed through the crowd like a half-back, to disappear down the street toward home. A fat woman huddled over a young girl and a trooper ran up, looked around uncertainly, and finally bent down to inspect. The mob emitted an eerie cry as it crossed and recrossed the plaza, attacking the dwindling remnants of Negro marchers. A small pile of black bodies lay in the street.

In thirteen minutes it was all over. The injured numbered forty-five.

Civil order had collapsed. Some Negroes — not the active demonstrators but those who had had enough of seeing people beaten — also were in a violent mood. As LeRoy Clark, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer who handled the court cases, said later, “In my judgment, the federal court actions and our success in court averted a small-scale civil war.” To dissuade those Negroes who, at this point, were on the verge of using violence against violence, the civil-rights leadership used two arguments: that the SCLC-sponsored street demonstrations had created a bona fide “crisis of conscience” impelling federal court intervention and, secondly, that once the court’s attention had been attracted, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s attorneys could swiftly achieve judicial relief.

Shortly before the Civil Rights Act was enacted in July, the Legal Defense Fund began its legal assault on a broad front. Sheriff Davis was beginning to use harsh treatment against demonstrators who were in jail. He would herd both men and women into a barbed-wire pen in the yard in a 99-degree sun; he kept them there all day. Water was insufficient and there was no latrine. At night the prisoners were crowded in small cells without room to lie down. The Legal Defense Fund filed injunctions in federal court against these practices, as well as against excessive bail (sometimes set as high as $3,000 per demonstrator). Both injunctions were granted.

A week later, on July 2, the Civil Rights Act was signed. Martin Luther King’s strategy now was to test restaurant compliance on a relatively small scale in order to assess the sincerity of the merchants. Most of the state troopers pulled out of the city. The merchants, with some exceptions, complied with the law, but soon they, in turn, became targets of intimidation. The town was virtually under vigilante mandate. Legal Defense Fund lawyers went back into court against the klan, Manucy, the Ancient City Hunting Club, Stoner, Lynch, the National States’ Rights Party, and against seventeen merchants who, out of fear or desire, had refused to serve Negroes. They also sought to help the more than twenty restaurants which had obeyed the new law. With one exception, restaurant owners who had been threatened or had their property damaged refused to name the individuals who had intimidated them. The federal court, in the second suit filed under the Civil Rights Act, ordered compliance.

After Hoss Manucy took the Fifth Amendment thirty-three times, Judge Simpson ordered him not to interfere with peaceful compliance and held him accountable for notifying all members of his club of the necessity for similar compliance; and fined a restaurant owner and a deputy sheriff for their roles in incidents in which Negroes were denied service.

At summer’s end, a St. Augustine grand jury reluctantly named a ten-man biracial commission, but in language which questioned the commission’s “legality” and took parting swipes at Martin Luther King. So far, this commission has not accomplished anything. In any case, with the mere presence of the passionate local klansmen, scarcely anyone will venture to predict the return of genuine peace. One resident said, “They’ve built up a big head of steam and as long as they’re not in jail, things in this town will be explosive.”

The St. Augustine vigilantes, an old tradition of violence as their heritage, nurture a new feel for power, and an angry despair pervades the rest of the city as a substitute for alternative courses of action. Some merchants would like to rid themselves of the likes of Mayor Shelley, but first must do something about the terrorists. For to oppose Shelley openly now would be to employ language that, in turn, would expose themselves.

Shelley and the business leaders also must weigh any ameliorative move against the predictable response of the violent elements. They have, indeed, created a monster. They have observed during the long summer that terror is more than a convenient tool for an embattled segregationist city government: it is a form of institutionalized anarchy and no one is safe so long as one man, freed from civilized restraints by his own sense of power, has a bomb and a grievance.

One senses that St. Augustine has lost the power to reform itself. Out of a great many causes — surely including the tenacious pride born of insular habits — too many “decent citizens” let things slide too long; the alternatives that existed in June of 1963 have vanished. While law-enforcement officers did little or nothing, the decent citizens of St. Augustine railed against King or Hayling or Communists. In 1963, violence was not a threat to them. They know better now. One or two of St. Augustine’s moderates will tell you (off the record) where the opportunities were that could have changed their city’s destiny: the attempts by Hayling and others to form a biracial commission in March, May, and June of 1963 and in January of 1964. Unfortunately, the same moderates denounced Hayling publicly during those periods of 1963.

He was too much for them to stomach, for he challenged the code itself: he acted like a white man; an Air Force lieutenant and a medical school graduate, he threatened the habits and thought processes of generations with his very presence. He sought integration as a right, beyond the dispensation of city fathers. Hayling is credited, or rather blamed, for activating the students, though there is evidence that his role was more to channel existing energy into new pursuits than to stimulate it in the first place. The fact that St. Augustine’s customs might offer legitimate cause for student discontent, with or without Hayling, was not the sort of analysis the town’s elders grasped during the summer of 1963.

After the start of the terror and then Hayling’s alleged statement about “shooting first and asking questions later,” those who had not already done so condemned him vehemently for his intemperance. Yet intemperate statements had been rather the vogue in St. Augustine for many months and the prevailing sentiment has always managed to find justification for such flashes of temper — except in the case of Dr. Hayling. Because similar ostracism was extended to Dr. King, the symbol of nonviolence in the civil-rights movement, one is driven to seek other motives for the white hostility toward the two leaders.

, a contributing editor of the “Texas Observer,” concentrated on St. Augustine during an extended tour of the South this summer. His father’s family has lived in Georgia for many generations, his mother’s in Virginia; he grew up in Texas. This article will be part of a book he is writing on the South.

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