Remembering A Civil Rights Swim-In: 'It Was A Milestone'

Jun 13, 2014
Originally published on June 13, 2014 1:14 pm

On June 18, 1964, black and white protesters jumped into the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Fla. In an attempt to force them out, the owner of the hotel poured acid into the pool.

Martin Luther King Jr. had planned the sit-in during the St. Augustine Movement, a part of the larger civil rights movement. The protest — and the owner's acidic response — is largely forgotten today, but it played a role in the passing of the Civil Rights Act, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

J.T. Johnson, now 76, and Al Lingo, 78, were two of the protesters in the pool that day. On a visit to StoryCorps in Atlanta, the pair recalled the hotel owner, James Brock, "losing it."

"Everybody was kind of caught off guard," J.T. says.

"The girls, they were most frightened, and we moved to the center of the pool," Al says.

"I tried to calm the gang down. I knew that there was too much water for that acid to do anything," J.T. says. "When they drug us out in bathing suits and they carried us out to the jail, they wouldn't feed me because they said I didn't have on any clothes. I said, 'Well, that's the way you locked me up!'

"But all of the news media were there, because somehow I guess they'd gotten word that something was going to happen at that pool that day. And I think that's when President [Lyndon B.] Johnson got the message."

The following day, the Civil Rights Act was approved, after an 83-day filibuster in the U.S. Senate.

"That had not happened before in this country, that some man is pouring acid on people in the swimming pool," J.T. says. "I'm not so sure the Civil Rights Act would have been passed had [there] not been a St. Augustine. It was a milestone. We was young, and we thought we'd done something — and we had."

J.T. went back to St. Augustine 40 years later, he tells Al. By then, the Monson Motor Lodge had been replaced with a Hilton Hotel.

"I sat and talked with the manager. I said to him that, 'You know, I can't stay in this hotel. You don't have any African-Americans working here,' " J.T. recalls.

"He said, 'Well, I promise you that next time you come down here it'll be different.' He immediately got busy," J.T. continues. "But he was one of the few people in St. Augustine, I think, that did some of the things that we had been talking about."

"So, to go back to St. Augustine, and it's still somewhat the same — now, that does make me feel bad. The lifting is still kind of heavy, but I'll continue to work as hard as I can, as long as I live," J.T. says. "I won't ever stop, and I won't ever give up."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's Friday and time for StoryCorps. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, let's hear about one moment that's been largely forgotten but that played a role in the passing of that landmark legislation. In the June of that year, J.T. Johnson and Al Lingo were among several black and white protesters who jumped into the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. The owner tried to force them out by pouring acid into the pool.

AL LINGO: He really lost it.

JT JOHNSON: He did. Everybody was kind of caught off guard.

LINGO: The girls, they were most frightened and we moved to the center of the pool.

JOHNSON: I tried to calm the gang down. I knew that there was too much water for that acid to do anything. Also, knew we weren't going to be in there long, that someone was going to drag us out of there. When they drug us out in bathing suits and they handed us out to the jail, they wouldn't feed me because they said I didn't have on any clothes. I said, well, that's the way he locked me up. But all of the news media was there because somehow, I guess, they had gotten word that something was going to happen at that pool that day. And I think that's when President Johnson got the message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE ROOTS: Our whole foreign policy and everything else go to hell over this. Yesterday, in the swimming pool in St. Augustine, they started pouring acid in the pool.

JOHNSON: That had not happened before in this country. That some man is pouring acid on people in the swimming pool. But it was just something that had to happen and it happened. And I'm not so sure that the Civil Rights Act would have been passed had there not been a St. Augustine. It was a milestone. We was young and we thought we had done something and we had. But, about 40 years later, I went back to St. Augustine and it's a Hilton Hotel where the Motor Lodge used to be. And I sat and talked with the manager. I said to him that, you know, I can't stand this hotel. You don't have any African-Americans working there. He said, well, I promise you that next time you come down here, it'll be different. He immediately got busy. But he was one of the few people in St. Augustine, I think, that did some of the things that we had been talking about. So to go back to St. Augustine and it's still somewhat the same - now, that does make me feel bad. The lifting is still kind of heavy but I'll continue to work as hard as I can as long as I live. I won't ever stop and I won't ever give up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GONNA LET NOBODY TURN ME AROUND")

ROOTS: (Singing) Ain't going to let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain't going to let nobody turn me around. Keep on walking, keep on talking, walking into freedom land.

MONTAGNE: That's J.T. Johnson and Al Lingo at StoryCorp in Atlanta, Georgia. Like all StoryCorp interviews, their conversation will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You can hear more stories from the Civil Rights Movement on the StoryCorp podcast at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GONNA LET NOBODY TURN ME AROUND")

ROOTS: (Singing) Ain't going let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain't going to let nobody turn me around. I'm going to keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', marchin' on to freedom land. Ain't going to let no jailhouse turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain't going to let no jailhouse turn me around. I'm going to keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', marchin' on to freedom land. Ain't going to let segregation turn me around, turn me around, turn me around...

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.