St. Augustine Commemorates Largest Mass Arrest Of Rabbis In U.S. History

Jun 17, 2014

Among the moments being celebrated during the commemoration of the civil rights movement is a little known local milestone — the largest mass arrest of rabbis in United States history.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands beside Rabbi Israel "Si" Dresner. Dubbed "the most arrested rabbi in America," Dresner was among 16 rabbis arrested in St. Augustine in 1964.
Credit Israel Dresner

As recently as 50 years ago, St. Augustine shopkeepers proudly displayed their Ku Klux Klan robes in the windows of their stores. 

In the spring of 1964, as St. Augustine celebrated the 400th anniversary of the city's founding, the U.S. Senate was considering the Civil Rights Act. Amid that backdrop, Martin Luther King Jr. launched a massive campaign to end segregation in the nation’s oldest city.

King knew that St. Augustine would be a challenge. So he brought in reinforcements — rabbinical reinforcements.

What happened next, on June 18, 1964, was extraordinary.

Merrill Shapiro of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society joined Melissa Ross to discuss the event and preview this week's commemoration with several of the rabbis arrested that day in 1964.

"Most rabbis here in the United States don't know," said Shapiro of the event, describing how the rabbis left their congregations and families behind to join the movement.

Six of the arrested rabbis will be back in St. Augustine this week to celebrate the anniversary with events including a panel discussion Tuesday night at Flagler College and a reading of the rabbi's famous "Why We Went" letter at the St. Augustine Visitor's Center on Wednesday.

"We have been asked to discuss with them the progress that's been made, and we're a little reticent, because there has not been enough progress," Shapiro said.

"Their message to us is that the work of the civil rights movement is far from finished."

You can follow Melissa Ross on Twitter @MelissainJax.