The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society’s Eighth Annual Commemoration of the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in US History took place outdoors at the Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront on the 57th anniversary of the original event.
On June 18, 1964, 16 Rabbis and a Reform Jewish administrator, in St. Augustine at the request of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were arrested and held in the St. Johns County Jail. Overnight, they wrote a letter entitled “Why We Went to St. Augustine” that was read as part of the commemoration. That letter was introduced by three shorter letters to the Rabbis in June, 1964 from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Secretary and confidant of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend C.T. Vivian and two letters from Reverend King. All three were read by the Lincolnville Museum’s Gayle Philips.
The letter “Why We Went To St. Augustine” written collectively by the Rabbis from their cell at the St. Johns County Jail overnight on June 18-19, 1964 was read by actor and playwright Reverend Lee Weaver, a member of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society Board of Directors.
In the letter the Rabbis note “Shortly after our confinement in the St. John’s County Jail, we shared with one another our real, inner motives. They are, as might be expected, mixed. We have tried to be honest with one another about the wrong, as well as the right, motives which have prompted us. These hours have been filled with a sense of surprise and discovery, of fear and affirmation, of self-doubt and belief in God.”
The 16 Rabbis continued, noting that “We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away. We could not say no to Martin Luther King, whom we always respected and admired and whose loyal friends we hope we shall be in the days to come. We could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means – a rare modern privilege – which has been the glory of the non-violent struggle for civil rights.”
Unlike other Rabbis working toward and end to segregation, these heroic leaders pointed to the Holocaust as a motivating factor. “We came as Jews who remember t he millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”
This year’s event was marked by an ever greater participation on the part of members of the African-American community led by Shelley Ragsdale of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. The site of the original arrest, now the Hilton Hotel is increasingly seen as a significant venue commemorating the cooperation between the Jewish and African-American communities.