In the summer of 1964, the tensions compounding around the Civil Rights Movement were heating up faster than the weather in St. Augustine, FL, which was serving as the unofficial – and perhaps accidental – epicenter of the movement. It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. helped organize numerous protests and demonstrations, including one "swim-in" that ended up gaining national attention and forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to take action – because a racist hotel manager poured acid in the pool.
In response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s unwarranted arrest on June 11, 1964, for attempting to enter the segregated restaurant of the Monson Motor Lodge, demonstrators – white and black alike – organized a protest at the lodge on June 18, using the whites-only pool as a symbol of resistance by jumping in to swim together, united and unsegregated.
Predictably, the already irate hotel management was further infuriated by this, and, in an effort to evict the protesters from the property, the hotel manager, Jimmy Brock, poured a tub of muriatic acid into the pool water. The image of Jimmy Brock pouring acid into a group of young people has since become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of the photographs taken during this incident spurred national uproar and have since become some of the most important images to come out of the Civil Rights era, capturing the bravery of some – and the inhumanity of others.
On the afternoon of June 18, 1964, a group of Civil Rights protesters gathered at the Monson Motor Lodge to take a stand against the discriminatory imprisonment of Martin Luther King Jr. and the greater injustices being endured by people of color across the nation. As part of their protest, the group of white and black individuals, including a 17-year-old woman named Mamie Nell Ford and six others, decided to jump the hotel's hedge and swim in the whites-only pool.
Management responded immediately. Despite the fact that police and journalists were present (providing a clear indication of just how discriminatory social and legal practices had become), hotel manager Jimmy Brock grabbed a bottle of muriatic acid (also known as hydrochloric acid) and poured it directly into the pool water nearest the protesters, apparently exclaiming, "I'm cleaning [the] pool!" as he poured.
And though the ratio of pool water to muriatic acid made the chemical minimally harmful, Ford, the woman seen in the infamous photo, described how she couldn't breathe as the chemical wafted up around her. Another of the protesters, though, in an effort to calm the others and continue their efforts, "drank some of the pool water," as he knew that there wasn't enough acid poured in to be harmful.
However, acid was the least of their worries; directly after this, police at the pool jumped into the water to quell the protest and arrest its participants.
Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for trespassing after attempting to enter the whites-only section of the Monson Motor Lodge's restaurant, a confrontation that was used as an opportunity to publicize both the non-violent approach used by Civil Rights activists and the desperate discrimination against black people that persisted across the city. In fact, the entire event was captured on film in the video seen above.
King's arrest, which was the only time he was arrested in the state of Florida, created a domino effect of further protests and confrontations between activists, police, and segregationists, including the swim-in demonstration, which King and a few other colleagues planned in retaliation to the lodge's refusal to admit King.
The aftermath of Dr. King's arrest and the swim-in demonstration was both swift and powerful. Once word of the St. Augustine Movement – as the protesters' activities in the city became known – made its way to Washington, DC, public officials could no longer avoid taking notice, and public outcry demanded action.
As a result, on July 1, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson got to work, drafting up and signing off on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed "discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." And, though the act itself was rather weak and certainly not enough, it did provide a foundational step toward securing equal rights and opportunities for all US citizens.
After the pool demonstration at his lodge, it is reported that Jimmy Brock broke down crying, "I can't stand it," before joining several restaurant owners in a pledge to uphold the newly implemented Civil Rights Act regardless of how they felt about it.
As a result, Brock became the subject of ridicule by the segregationists who initially supported him and complained to the press that the Civil Rights Act which existed to humanize people of color was the "most obnoxious thing that ever happened in the 42 years of [his] life."
Brock also attempted to overturn the law as unconstitutional because of how difficult it was for him to uphold it.