St. Augustine To Remember Largest Mass Arrest Of Rabbis In US History

Jun 15, 2015

The rabbis being arrested created a diversion so the young black activists could jump into the “white-only” pool. The motel manager, Jimmy Brock, is pouring acid into the pool to force them out.

The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society plans to hold an event this week to remember the contributions Jewish leaders made to the civil rights movement.

Seventeen Jewish leaders were arrested in St. Augustine in 1964 for supporting the civil rights movement. This was the largest mass arrest of rabbis in U.S. history.

The rabbis arrived in St. Augustine after receiving a letter from Martin Luther King Junior asking them to unite in the fight for civil rights.

The men created a diversion in front of Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, which allowed young black activists the opportunity to jump in the motel’s “white-only” swimming pool.

During an appearance on WJCT's “First Coast Connect,” Rabbi Merrill Shapiro member of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, and Reverend Ron Rawls of St Paul A.M.E. Church, talked about the arrest and how it shaped St. Augustine’s history.

Shapiro says the rabbis were driven to act by the memory of the Holocaust. “In Europe, from the rise of Nazism in 1933 through the end of the war in 1945, so many Jews went to their deaths in the gas chambers and in the camps and the public remained silent.," Shapiro said. "No one said anything. And they, the Rabbis, said ‘We cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. We have learned that lesson well.’” 

Shapiro says there aren’t many people who know about the historic event.

“It was only a night in jail, but for them it was a statement, that again, we and our brothers and sisters of color are in this together,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro says he thinks it’s symbolic that the rabbis worked side-by-side with black youths during this time.

Rawls says many of those young people who teamed up with the rabbis are still living in St. Augustine.

“I mean they’re a little bit older now, but we’re still fighting the same battle,” Rawl said. “They’re still alive and well, and they don’t get the publicity, but they are people that played a key role in many of the changes.”

Shapiro says he agrees there’s still work to be completed from the civil rights movement.

“The actions that were taken by the rabbis in 1964 have to inform what we do here in 2015, not in only in Florida but throughout our country,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro says the event called “Why We Went to St. Augustine” will include a public reading of a letter written by the 17 Jewish leaders who were arrested.

He says the gathering will move to a local restaurant after the reading so those who attend can discuss the historical event and how it relates to today’s issues with faith and race.

“I think it’s always extremely important to be informed and to understand the bridges that we’ve crossed,” Rawls said.

The event will take place Thursday, June 18 at noon in St. Augustine.

Listen to the full conversation with Rabbi Merrill Shapiro and Reverend Ron Rawls on Monday’s episode of the “First Coast Connect” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.