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53 Years After MLK's St. Augustine march, Pastor Plans Protest Against City’s Confederate Monument

Michael Rivera
Wikimedia Commons
Plaza de la Constitucion, St. Augustine, Florida

A St. Augustine pastor is organizing a protest during the kickoff party for one of the city’s most attended annual events — Nights of Lights.

The AME Reverend Ron Rawls is voicing displeasure with a recent city decision to keep Confederate monuments in public spaces.

The choice of nights to protest the decision is no coincidence.

Rawls has shepherded the St. Paul AME Church congregation for more than a decade. The Gainesville native and University of Florida alumnus said the church’s liberation theology was something he learned from a very young age.

“That is the DNA of who we are. I was raised AME and that is what I was taught my entire life — that we’re not only [to] worship God in singing songs and reading scriptures, but we also worship God in ensuring that all of God’s people are able to live a liberated life,” he said.

The St. Augustine City Council decided recently, after hours of public comment and a number of pro-monument and anti-monument protests, to keep the city’s two existing Confederate memorials up in public spaces — one owned and managed by the city and another by UF.

Instead of tearing them down or moving them to museums, city leaders decided to create a panel that would help craft placards that would go alongside the monuments to more accurately “contextualize” the realities of slavery and the Civil War.

Rawls said he isn’t against the idea in theory, but that he has little faith in yet-to-be appointed panel’s fairness.

“The city commission won't have the backbone to say ‘you whitewashed this.’ What they’ll say is ‘well, we went through the process and this is what we came up with’ and that’s pretty much how it’s done in St. Augustine,” he said.

Rawls said applying Martin Luther King Jr.’s tactics of nonviolent protest, doesn’t mean people should feel comfortable and he knows the Nights of Lights draws tourists and locals from around the city and state. So, it only makes sense for him and his flock to demonstrate when they’re most visible.

King traveled to and marched in St. Augustine 53 years ago demanding an end to Jim Crow.

Rawls plans to have a group march from his church to the Plaza de La Constitution at 5 in the evening. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.