Cover: Cropped postcard image of Monson Motor Lodge c. late 1960s featuring the infamous swimming pool.

While researching motels to write about for our Motel Mondays, most of our stories are about motels we stayed at as kids or ones that have been lovingly restored but maintain just the right of nostalgic kitsch that we know our fellow road warriors and family vacationers would love to stay in.

Every once in awhile, however, we come across a motel that, in some way, whether good or bad, played a significant part in the history of our country. The Monson Motor Lodge, the subject of today’s Motel Monday, was one such motel.  

The Monson Motor Lodge

Jimmy Brock, Owner/Operator of Monson Motor Lodge in 1964. Picture cropped from back of postcard c. late 1960s / Public Domain

According to the back of a late 1960s postcard, next to the grinning picture of the motor lodge’s owner/operator Jimmy Brock, the postcard reads in part that the motel was “established nearly one hundred years ago, and now completely rebuilt into a modern Motor Lodge” It goes on to say that the Monson Motor Lodge was elegantly appointed with “wall to wall carpeting, television in every room, telephones, 100% air conditioning, a swimming pool, and Restaurant.” (Remember that swimming pool – it’s becomes an important part of our story a bit later.)

What the back of the postcard doesn’t tell you is that, like many motels, hotels, and restaurants in St. Augustine, and indeed all around Florida and the South, The Monson Motor Lodge – the “Motor Lodge with the Florida Sunshine Personality” was for “White’s Only”. (This was in spite of the recent passing of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited segregation of public places like motels and restaurants who were slow in accepting the integration of their establishments.)

The 1964 Monson Motor Lodge Protest 

Tired of the restaurants and overnight accommodations dragging their feet on desegregation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) started a Civil Rights campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, in June and July of 1964 led by Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Hayling, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others. (Actually, Hayling had started recruiting college students to take part in the protests as early as spring break that year.)  

The SCLC chose St Augustine as the Civil Rights Movement’s next battlefield in the war against racial segregation because St. Augustine was known to be highly racist; however, at the time it was also very dependent on the almighty Northern tourist dollar. They chose the Monson Motor Lodge because its owner/operator, James Brock – a well known moderate, but an even more well-known segregationist – also happened to be the president of the St. Augustine Hotel, Motel, and Restaurant Owners Association.

Jimmy Brock pouring muriatic acid into the pool in an attempt to “burn” the protesters out.
Image by Unknown photojournalist, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

On June 11, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to have lunch served to him at the Monson Motor Lodge; however, Brock refused to serve King and asked him to leave. After King refused to leave, Brock called the police who arrested King for trespassing and took him to jail. From his cell, King subsequently wrote a “Letter from the Saint Augustine Jail” to friend and Rabbi Israel Dresner, encouraging him and other rabbis to come down to Saint Augustine from New Jersey and New York and take part in the protests. And come they did.

“Wade In” Brings National Attention St. Augustine

The campaign culminated on June 18th when, after another confrontation at the Monson Motor Lodge, 17 rabbis were arrested – the largest mass of rabbis to ever be arrested in U.S. history. Meanwhile, while the rabbis were being arrested, a racially mixed group of black and white protestors from Albany, Georgia – JT Johnson, Brenda Darten, and Mamie Nell Ford – jumped into the pool for what would later be called by the press a “Wade-In” – a clear play on words about the famous Civil Rights “sit-ins” of the time.

Obviously tired of all the protests and negative publicity his motor lodge was receiving, Brock was seemingly driven to his breaking point and attempted to discharge the protesting swimmers by pouring muriatic acid into the pool to burn them. Eventually, a policeman jumped in the pool in full uniform sans only his shoes to arrest the protestors. He ended up beating them to get out of the pool. Pictures of both made headlines all around the world.

The Aftermath

Twelve days after the Monson Motor Lodge protests and “wade-in” Florida’s Governor, Farris Bryant announced he would form a bi-racial committee that would help restore communications between the races in St. Augustine.

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law as Martin Luther King, Jr. stands behind him just a little over two weeks after the St. Augustine protests at Monson Motor Lodge.
Image: Public Domain

Still, the protests had a near disastrous effect on Florida with St. Augustine losing millions of dollars in tourism revenue in 1965 because of the underlying racial tension that was still plaguing the city weeks after the protests.

And Brock? Well, after all was said and done, Brock and his friends from other St. Augustine hospitality and restaurant businesses were forced into integration by the courts. Nevertheless, Brock’s troubles remained. Soon after Brock started integrating his motel, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed it.  To make matters worse, he couldn’t get loans from banks to repair the damage caused by the Civil Rights protesters or the Ku Klux Klan.  As a result, he declared bankruptcy in 1965.

The Monson Motor Lodge and its landmark swimming pool were demolished in March 2003 and save its front steps with a plaque memorializing the events of June 1964, nothing else remains of one of the nation’s most important civil rights movement icons.

Today, of course, St. Augustine welcomes tourists of all creeds, colors, and religions; still, one can’t help but think of how different things might be if it weren’t for the actions of those courageous men and women who came together with the belief of our forefathers that “all men are created equal.”

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