1964 was the year of the “Mississippi Summer.” The civil rights movement was making its strongest challenge yet to the practices of Jim Crow in the south. Upwards of a thousand young people went to Mississippi to attempt to register black voters and help organize the black community. This effort spread throughout the south. Various civil rights groups got together and agreed that the movement needed a large number of lawyers throughout the south and formed the Lawyers’ Constitutional Defense Committee. (LCDC) Participating organizations included the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, and a few other organizations. They decided to send lawyers down to Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and a number of other states for a few weeks to support the civil rights movement. Most of these lawyers devoted their vacation time to the movement.
Under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress, I volunteered to go down south in August and, until the very last minute, I had no idea where I would be sent. I figured the odds were I would be going to Mississippi, but as it turned out I was sent to St. Augustine, Florida. Many of us know St. Augustine as a quiet town where Ponce DeLeon supposedly discovered the “fountain of youth.” It was much more complicated than that. Racism in the south was often quite surprising. For instance, there was very little housing segregation in St. Augustine and no such thing as a “black neighborhood.” Despite the racism, blacks and whites lived “next door” to each other and got to know each other. Of course, Jim Crow prevented the black and white communities from really knowing each other. Also, unlike in most of the south, the majority of the people living in St. Augustine were Catholic, not Protestant and the KKK had no use for them. Still, many of these Floridians were transplants from the north or from Canada who, on arriving in the south, became strong supporters of segregation and racial discrimination. So, since the Klan wouldn’t have them, the Catholic population formed their own organization, “Manuci’s Raiders,” named after Hoss Manuci, a local racist.
I flew into Jacksonville, Florida and got a ride to the local LCDC office in St. Augustine which was located in the waiting room of Dr. Robert Hayling, a black dentist who was the President of the local SCLC. Historical and momentous legal business was being conducted in this waiting room. The very first night I arrived, an incident took place. A member of Manuci’s Raiders approached Dr. Hayling’s building, gun drawn and shouting “c’mon out.” He sounded like he was drunk and was yelling racial epithets. The other lawyers and I who were in the waiting room at the time discussed what we could do to get rid of this guy who, I was told, was Manuci himself. One lawyer, from Newark, New Jersey, wanted to call the State Police to have Manuci removed. I told him he must be kidding: the State Police were surely in cahoots with these local “Klansmen” but he said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.” He called the State Police and in short order a uniformed trooper came by. The lawyer told the trooper to “get rid of that guy”—and he gave him ten bucks. This might have been a little irregular but it did the trick. The cop took the money and took care of the situation.
The lawyers at the LCDC office, aka Dr. Hayling’s waiting room, were very skilled and devoted to the cause. One fellow in particular, Alvin Bronstein from Elizabethville in upstate New York, was most effective. I believe he went on to become the head of the capital punishment section of the American Civil Liberties Union and then a professor at Harvard. Another attorney, from Washington D.C., went on to become the Legal Director of the ACLU in D. C.
When I arrived in St. Augustine the SCLC had led all sorts of demonstrations and there were one thousand civil rights criminal matters pending for which the office was responsible. In addition, there were various civil suits to force the integration of certain public facilities, including the local hospital. On the front burner was a case seeking the abolition of racial segregation and discrimination in approximately twenty restaurants and motels. A lawsuit pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had resulted in a decision ordering these restaurants and motels to accommodate black people on a non-discriminatory basis. Several weeks had passed and most, if not all, of the restaurants and motels were not in compliance with the Federal Court Order.
We made an application to the Federal Court to hold one of these facilities in contempt and the Court found in our favor and fined the owner five hundred dollars and required him to turn in the Deputy Sheriff’s Badge he held. This made national headlines because it was the first contempt conviction under the newly-passed Civil Rights Act, which was only a month or so old at the time.
Racism could be quite complicated. The businessman who was held in contempt was leading a double life. In addition to having a (white) wife and children, he had a black lover, spent as much time with her as with his legal wife and children, and made no attempt to hide the situation. He had two or three children with his lover and, in fact, accepted full responsibility for their well-being. I was told he paid for these kids’ college education. Apparently, this whole situation was quite commonplace.
Because of the publicity surrounding the contempt citation, Martin Luther King came down to St. Augustine and staged some press conferences attended by an enormous number of reporters, cameramen, photographers, and the like. On one occasion I caught a photographer who was looking for something to “shoot” encouraging a teenager to throw an ice cream cone at a group of civil rights workers so that he would have that picture to present to his employer. I chastised him for encouraging something so stupid and he looked at me sheepishly and walked away.
I recall that at one of the press conferences there was a long table covered by white sheets that would look good for the photographers and cameramen, and Dr. King kept insisting that I sit at the middle of the table. I told him that I was not the one the media were interested in and that he should sit there. He responded with words to the effect of “C’mon. Your wife will be surprised to see you on TV.” I finally talked him into letting me sit off to the side.
I had a lot of personal contact with Dr. King and probably ate a meal with him on five or so occasions. The most memorable were the times I heard him speak, along with his associate, the Rev. Jose Williams, at two or three black churches. The way it worked was that Dr. King spoke first, then Rev. Williams, and then the “Jewish lawyer from New York,” Alvin Dorfman. Dr. King’s talk was absolutely brilliant: the content, word choice and delivery were just terrific and the audience was in awe. When he finished his talk, I noticed that some of the people in the audience were beginning to head for the door and attempt to exit the church. Rev. Jose Williams got up and shouted, “OK you niggers—get back into the church.” Obviously they expected a request for contributions and were trying to save themselves some money but they all came back and sat down.