Besides Albany, GA, St. Augustine, FL is probably the greatest unsung civil rights battlefield. Conspicuous among the civil rights legends from this amazing chapter of history, is 72-year-old Mary Peabody (“Grandmother Peabody”) who flew from Boston to St. Augustine in the last week of March of 1964 to participate in sit-ins which were famously volatile and often violent. As the mother of Massachusett’s Governor (Endicott Peabody), Mary Peabody’s unusual participation was a turning point that generated publicity and put an international spotlight on demonstrations in St. Augustine. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent a public telegram to then-Governor of Massachusetts stating, “I have been so deeply inspired by your mother’s creative witness in Florida.”
Mary Peabody was the wife of the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York and the mother of Massachusetts Governor Endicott Peabody. Upon arriving in St. Augustine during the last week of March of 1964, Mary Peabody told Hosea Williams (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s deputy) “I do not believe they will deny me the pleasure of lunch with my Negro friend.” Williams replied, “Mrs. Peabody, these folk will deny Jesus.”
During her visit, Mrs. Peabody would test segregation at lunch counters, churches, and at Monson Motor Lodge (where owner James Brock, upon noticing African-Americans swimming in the pool, famously poured 2 gallons of acid in it). On March 31st, Peabody tried to attend the morning communion service at Trinity Episcopal Church. She found the doors locked and Sheriff Davis standing guard, who explained that the vestry considered her attendance a demonstration rather than worship, and therefore had canceled the service to protect life and property.
Peabody would be arrested. Fifty reporters clamored outside for jail interviews. Within two hours of the booking, their news bulletins stimulated demands for briefings by the Justice Department and the FBI from U.S. senators concerned about Peabody’s welfare, and St. Augustine sprang up instantly among the leading national news stories. The New York Times placed on its front page a large photograph of Mary Peabody in custody, flanked by Sheriff Davis with a cattle prod in his hands and a cigar in his mouth (see photo above). Emissaries from Walter Cronkite guaranteed Mrs. Peabody an appearance on the nightly news if she would bail out in time to film a network interview at a Jacksonville studio. She declined, sending word that she preferred to stay in jail with her new friends.
Sheriff Davis refused to release any civil rights prisoners without stiff cash bonds ranging from $200 to upward of $2,000. He thought the whites might as well stay in jail–“These bums will all be back here for holding hands with niggers.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., sent a public telegram to then-Governor of Massachusetts stating, “I have been so deeply inspired by your mother’s creative witness in Florida.” “Grandmother Peabody,” as a fresh national celebrity, soon extolled the promise of St. Augustine on NBC’s Today show.
St. Augustine’s Mayor Shelley argued that his city had enjoyed racial harmony before it was targeted by outsiders. The May 21, 1964 headline of the Florida Times-Union read “Mrs. Peabody’s Act Seen Harmful to All.” Mary Peabody’s arrest was clearly a turning point. After her arrest in April, St. Augustine suffered a 40% loss in tourist business. Privately, at his urging, President Johnson officials pushed the St. Augustine officials for small concessions–such as a biracial commission–that might allow Martin Luther King, Jr. to withdraw.
“And for God’s sake let us not be satisfied until the total problem is solved. A few days ago I was in a community…and the newspaper came out with an editorial saying, ‘When will Martin Luther King and the Negroes be satisfied?’…We will not be satisfied until all of God’s children can walk the streets of St. Augustine, Florida, with a sense of dignity and self-respect. We will not be satisfied until the walls of segregation in St. Augustine, Florida, have been finally crushed….We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters…”Martin Luther King, Jr. June 30, 1964
Click here to see a 1964 brochure from the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge where Mary Peabody was arrested for attempting to integrate the cocktail lounge with 2 African-Americans, Dr. Robert Hayling and Esther Burgess.
Click here to see brochure from the Monson Motor Lodge where Mary Peabody was evicted for testing segregation and where owner James Brock, upon noticing African-Americans swimming in the pool, famously poured 2 gallons of acid in it.
For a fascinating read about Mary Peabody, please read Chapter 20 “Mary Peabody Meets the Klan” in Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire (volume 2 of his 3-volume 2,912 page exploration of the Civil Rights Movement).