"Untitled" by Donald Martin | Obelisk 450
Donald Martin, a professor of art at Flagler College since 1980, is a multi-media artist with completed public art projects located throughout Florida, including at the Bacardi Corporation, Flagler College, and Jacksonville International Airport. While Martin’s personal work deals primarily with nature, he is enthusiastic about taking on the themes of freedom, democracy, human rights, and compassion.
Near this site once stood the infamous Monson Travelodge where, in June of 1964, a group of civil rights activists attempted to integrate the “Whites Only” motel swimming pool. Motel management responded to the demonstrators by pouring muriatic acid into the pool causing great pandemonium. Nearby reporters recorded the events on film and news of the demonstration and the brutal response spread throughout the nation’s newspapers. Reaction to the images was immediate and strong and this incident is believed to have been a significant factor in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 just a couple of weeks following the incident.
In my design for this obelisk I wanted my images to relate to this specific incident but, at the same time, use this incident as a metaphor for the struggle of all courageous individuals and groups as they pull themselves out of a “pool” of despair and prejudice in an attempt to create a more just and equitable future.
While most equate Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis with the Civil Rights movement, historians now say the campaign in St. Augustine was pivotal when it came to turning the tide of national opinion. The fight was painful and costly but it also brought people together, awakened a nation to action, and directly led to the passage of the landmark US Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Fifty years ago, St. Augustine’s schools, restaurants, businesses, and even beaches were segregated. It took the incredible courage of the Civil Rights Movement’s participants -- from young students to local leaders to Dr. Martin Luther King to Jewish rabbis -- to bring about change here and throughout the country.
From 1960-64, planned marches, demonstrations, protests and sit-ins, set the stage for the momentous “acid in the pool” incident at the former Monson Motor Lodge in June 1964. Although just one in a string of violence and hatred, it was the one that captured national media attention – but not the kind the city wanted as it prepared to celebrate its 400th anniversary.
This incident also inspired the national Jewish community to support the cause. Sixteen Reform Rabbis came to St. Augustine on June 17, 1964. That night they participated in a march around the Plaza de Constitution. The next day, movement leaders, the rabbis, and about 50 supporters marched downtown to the Monson Motor Lodge for a two-pronged demonstration. When they tried to enter the restaurant, owner James Brock blocked the door. The rabbis knelt to pray and Brock threatened to have them arrested. While this was happening, two civil rights workers who were registered guests at the hotel announced they had the right to invite five Negro friends to swim.
Because of “near-riot” conditions at recent demonstrations, the governor had assigned a “Special Police Force” with the Florida Highway Patrol and other non-local authorities in charge. As the surrounding crowd shouted vicious threats at the demonstrators, Florida State Troopers attempted to hold them back.
In response, Brock poured two gallons of muriatic acid into the pool. A local officer then leaped in, roughly hauling the protestors out, and it was this image that was splashed across the front pages of the Miami Herald and the New York Times. All the protestors, including the rabbis, were arrested.
The events led to the passage of the US Civil Rights Act. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964, saying that the principles of our freedom and morality forbid denying men equal treatment and this law would forever ensure that. History shows even though things didn’t change instantly, this turning point was a long-awaited step towards guaranteeing freedom, democracy, and human rights –– not only for African Americans but for all.