Lincolnville’s Cora Tyson And The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

By Lucia Viti

Lincolnville — As we honor Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most influential Black leaders in American history, we celebrate the life of a Baptist minister, scholar, civil-rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatama Ghandi, Dr. King remained deeply committed to achieving social justice through non-violence. The visionary played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1968, on April 4-th after years of peaceful demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, wade-ins and stints in jail, Dr. King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of his hotel room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Many describe the event as the shot heard around the world. A life was severed as a legacy was born.

While Dr. King’s impact on race relations in the United States is well documented, little is known about the integral role St. Augustine played in the Civil Rights Movement and the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

Click here for Lucia Viti’s Podcast story on Dr. King, The St. Augustine Movement and an interview with Mrs. Cora Tyson. Dr. King’s friend who offered her home as a safe house while he stayed in St. Augustine.

In 1963, as America remained embedded in the Cold War while facing the onset of the Vietnam War, Lincolnville, St. Augustine’s residential Black community established by free slaves after the Civil War, became a target for the Klu Klux Klan following a peaceful sit in by Black students at the King Street Woolworth Lunch counter.

The event ignited The St. Augustine Movement, a wave of disorder and resistance that would not only defy the laws of Jim Crow, it would help to eventually destroy them. Led by Dr. Hayling, known as the father of the St. Augustine Movement, Blacks peacefully protested as the KKK viciously attacked. Violence consumed the city. Homes were destroyed by fire-bombings and gunfire. While observing a Klan rally, Dr. Hayling and three fellow activists were struck with chains and clubs and rescued within minutes of being lynched and burned. Despite his broken ribs, a maimed hand and the loss of 11 teeth, Dr. Hayling was fined for assault.

Black students, determined to swim in the waters of the white only beaches of Anastasia Island, were assaulted and forced into deeper currents by white segregationists; some so far out, they had to be rescued.

The tranquil coastal city had become an arena of aggression. Dr. Hayling called Dr. King to assist in taming the situation now out of control.

At the time, Dr. King was urging Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. The law would not only prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, sex or natural origin, it would ban segregation in public places. Blacks would no longer be required to remain in areas designated for blacks only.

As the bill languished in a Senate filibuster, Dr. King summoned the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to descend with him on St. Augustine to publicly showcase the city’s rabid segregation policies. As Dr. King and local leaders gathered Lincolnville residents to peacefully march and participate in sit-ins and wade-ins, white activists continued to retaliate.

Dr. King was then arrested as he attempted to eat at a St. Augustine bay front restaurant in the Monson Motor Lodge. Designated for whites only, he was charged with trespassing. His incarceration fueled students to protest. And indeed they did. This time however, the repercussions for their actions would spark a public outrage.

On June 18th, 1964, during a wade-in at the Monson Motor Lodge, James Brock, the motel’s manager was photographed pouring two jugs of muriatic acid - undiluted hydrochloric acid - into the pool to force the protestors out.

Although no one was hurt, the images triggered a national outcry, including one from then President, Lyndon B. Johnson. As Augustine’s drama unfolded center stage, the US Senate, no longer able to feign ignorance, ended its 83-day filibuster and signed the Civil Rights Act into law two weeks later.

While in St. Augustine, Dr. King was sheltered in Lincolnville safe houses. 81 Bridge Street, the home of John and Cora Tyson not only served as a safe house, it became Dr. King’s headquarters.

Cora Tyson, now 98, still lives in that home. A home she shared with her husband and son. A home filled with memories of front porch conversations with Dr. King and his entourage of leaders as they sipped ginger-ale laced ice tea.

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