1964 - Letter from St. Augustine Jail

J. Lawrence and Harriet Burkholder
J. Lawrence and Harriet Burkholder

J. Lawrence Burkholder was on the faculty at Harvard Divinity School when in 1964 he joined Mary (Mrs. Malcolm) Peabody in an attempt to integrate the diner at the Ponce De Leon Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. Mrs. Peabody was the wife of a retired Episcopalian bishop and mother of Endicott Peabody, governor of Massachusetts. Mennonites became aware of this act of civil disobedience because Burkholder’s photo was on the front page of many newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer. The photo captured him and Mrs. Peabody seated in a county-owned limousine on their way to jail.

Lawrence and his wife Harriet were in Palm Beach, Florida, at that time because it was spring break at Harvard, and they sought the peace and quiet of a short vacation. He had no idea his trip would result in a civil rights action. But he knew that college students from New England were descending on St. Augustine to participate in desegregation demonstrations under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had encouraged students to use their spring break time to become active in his movement for justice.

On Easter Sunday morning, March 29, 1964, J. Lawrence heard on the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. might be coming to St. Augustine, and he realized that this event could be of national significance. When he asked Harriet whether he could leave her and go up to Saint Augustine, she reluctantly said, “Well, all right. If you must go, you must go.”

He boarded a bus in Palm Beach on Tuesday morning, March 31, and upon arriving in St. Augustine entered the office of a young black dentist, Dr. Robert Hayling, who was organizing the upcoming actions. As soon as Lawrence walked into Dr. Hayling’s office, someone said, “Here’s the man who will go with us.” What happened next was explained by J. Lawrence in a letter he wrote to Harriet that day.

The Letter

St. John’s County Jail

RFD 2, Box 84

St. Augustine, Florida

Tuesday [March 31, 1964]

Dear Harriet,

You should get this shortly after returning. On the way to jail I scratched a message to you and gave it to the Negro driver. It was to have been telephoned to you at Miami.

It all came about this way. I got here this morning at 9:45 am in St. Augustine and went immediately to Dr. [Robert] Hayling’s office. There I met the leaders of the movement including William [Sloane] Coffin from Yale [University]. The real leader is a Negro from Savannah, Georgia, by the name of Hosea Williams, a tremendous person who is one of Martin Luther King’s men. After some discussion, we were interrupted by a report that the Negro school children from a segregated school had decided to take the day off and march. About 400 children (junior high and high) came marching down the street singing freedom songs. Thereupon Williams and Coffin gave them speeches on non-violence and on the Negro plight.

As it turns out, it was decided to make a silent march on the “old slave market.” The sheriff drove up and warned them not to demonstrate in a vigorous way (whatever that meant). At any rate, the silent march remained orderly until police with dogs and electric cow prods stepped in and trouble started. They arrested kids by the tens, and, in addition, several newspaper men and some Northern students. I should add that about 45 Northern students and adults are already in jail.

In the meantime, the leaders engaged several women in conversation about a sit-in in one of the largest and most exclusive motels, the Ponce de Leon [Motor Lodge]. Yesterday, Mrs. Peabody sat in at the Ponce de Leon, but she left when asked to do so. [Five others in the group, including Dr. Hayling, refused to leave and were arrested.] Today she was encouraged to stay put and see what happens. This she was reluctant to do since it could have implications for Gov. Peabody’s political future. After some pretty strong persuading and a call to Gov. Peabody, she consented to run the risk of arrest with Mrs. Campbell (wife of Professor Donald J. Campbell at Episcopal Theological Seminary). At the same time, I was asked to accompany Mrs. Peabody. They wanted to mix the images of a governor’s mother, local colored women, and a professor. At any rate, I agreed.

We were driven out to the motel. The police suspected the move – there were state police all over the place. When we got to the motel, we walked into the lavish dining room and sat down. The manager thereupon asked us to leave. We very politely requested to be served. Again he asked us to leave. We just sat. In about five minutes, eight or ten state policemen came. Thereupon an officer asked us individually whether we planned to leave. Each said, “No.” Ironically, a sophisticated woman walked up to Mrs. Peabody and encouraged her not to go through with it. She was an old Episcopal friend from Philadelphia who just happened to be in the dining room at that time.

It didn’t take long for us to be placed into police cars and sent to the county jail. When we got here, the place was just full of kids. About 75 were outside on the lawn surrounded by policemen and dogs. We were asked to wait, and the press was permitted to interview Mrs. Peabody. Possibly it will be on one of the channels on t.v. Finally, we were “written up.” I am not sure what our charges were, but I believe they are 1) trespassing, 2) conspiring to break the law, 3) being undesirable guests.

The cell in which I am writing this is fairly large. There are a number of ministers and ministerial students here from Yale, Colgate, Brown, etc. I hope they will provide bedding. So far I have none. But I have no reason to complain since most of the Negros will sleep on the floor [in a separate cell]. Incidentally, Mrs. Bishop John Burgess was jailed yesterday [with Dr. Hayling and others as noted before].

I’m really sorry to miss the E-town engagement [Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania]. However, I feel that I have done so much speaking of this sort and little comes of it. In other words, this seemed more important at this time. I can go the Elizabethtown later. My hope is to get out on Thursday so that I can get to Defiance, Ohio, by Friday evening.

The real question is bail money. I have not been arraigned, and so I don’t know how much bail money is needed. The amount they have demanded others for similar offenses is $750. Bill Coffin has wired Walter Reuther of CIO for $50,000. Bail money is recoverable and so it is very likely to be made available. Word is also around that an effort is being made to raise money in Boston. If worse comes to worse, we may have to get a short term loan from the bank. We could do this with the AT&T shares which are now in the bank vault at Harvard Trust.

Some of the fellows here have not been eating [by choice] for three days. They suggested I eat and so I did. The supper was pretty good – rice and stew. The other prisoners (regulars) say that the food has improved since we came. The cell is quite dirty, however. The beds are steel [bunks]. I only hope I get a mattress. Unfortunately, my suitcase is at the Greyhound bus station.

I am told that we are permitted to make one call. Most likely I will call on Thursday even if I am not released by that time.

I really feel that I did the right thing. To walk off when Mrs. Peabody goes to jail seemed cowardly. Actually it was doubted whether they would arrest us. I decided to run the risk.

Conditions here [in St. Augustine] are simply awful. The Negroes are in mortal fear. Some are afraid of being shot by the Klansmen. Dr. Hayling’s life is in real danger. Negroes have had their houses burned down. Just today Klansmen shot up a restaurant that integrated yesterday, and a Ford garage which has hired a father of a child who has gone to the white school was damaged. I’m just beginning to feel what an awful life these Negroes have.

Must close now and find some way of getting this down to the desk. Have no idea when or by whom it will be mailed. Hope you got along OK on such a shortage of money. Above all don’t worry about me. I am safer here than on a highway. *

Love to you and all the kids.



The next day, Wednesday, April 1, those who had been arrested in the restaurant were taken before Judge Charles Mathis for their arraignment. Mrs. Peabody was the first one to be interviewed, with J. Lawrence second or third. He claims in his memoir that he did not say much during the arraignment. However, Mrs. Hester Campbell noted in her book Four for Freedom (Carlton Press 1974, p. 57) that a young Negro who was to be interviewed asked the judge if he might go and telephone his parents. When the judge gave him a curt refusal, J. Lawrence turned to the judge and said with indignation, “That was a perfectly legitimate request and deserved a courteous answer.” Mrs. Campbell did not remember the response from the judge except that he looked very angry and retreated to his inner office for a while.

J. Lawrence expressed some anxiety in his letter to Harriet about how he would pay for his bail. As it turned out, he need not have worried about this issue. According to William Kunstler in his book Deep in My Heart (William Morrow 1966, p. 275), he and several other civil rights lawyers were able to arrange for bail bonds to be issued by Allegheny Mutual Casualty Company for all the demonstrators in jail at the time of J. Lawrence’s arrest. The Episcopal News Service: Press Release #XX-10 also reported that J. Lawrence and several other chaplains and ministers, including Rev.William Sloane Coffin, Jr., each had bail bonds set for them for $100, which was a rather modest amount compared to J. Lawrence’s expectations.

In Elaine Sommers Rich’s article, “Harvard Professor Tells of Three Days in Noisy, Packed Jail at St. Augustine” (Mennonite Weekly Review 4-14-64, p. 6), she quotes J. Lawrence as saying that jail inmates cheered whenever anyone was brought in, as if it were a football rally. He also said that being there was the noisiest three days he had ever spent, with the singing of freedom songs and the holding of arm wrestling matches to keep up the morale of the younger students.

In his memoir, J. Lawrence noted that the press was everywhere during these events. This may have contributed to the early release the next day on Thursday, April 2, of the many demonstrators, including himself. The day following, he arrived home in Boston in time to be able to travel on to Ohio to keep his weekend speaking engagements.

The trial for J. Lawrence and the others arrested with him was set for May 5. However, as Mrs. Campbell explained in Four for Freedom (p. 65), this was postponed and the case against each of them was eventually dismissed.

Lawrence 's civil rights involvement in the 60's also included being one of several thousand marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on "Turnaround Tuesday, March 9, 1965, and speaking at a memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Harvard Memorial Church on April 4, 1968, which he said was the greatest honor of his life.

*This letter most likely was carried home by J. Lawrence because its envelope was not stamped or postmarked.

*Myrna Burkholder, daughter of J. Lawrence, is editing her father’s memoir, which will be published by The Institute of Mennonite Studies, Elkhart, Indiana in 2016.

About the Author

Myrna Burkholder

Myrna Burkholder was the founder and first manager in 1970 of Menno House, a residence for young adults in New York City. She later worked with Student and Young Adult Services for Mennonite Mission Network, serving as national director from 1982-1990. She graduated with a degree in art education from Goshen College in 1963 and later earned master’s degrees in Art Education from Columbia University and Reading/Learning Disabilities from New York University. Semi-retired, she works part-time with the Michiana Dyslexia Correction Center, which she founded in 1998. Myrna lives in Goshen, Indiana, and attends College Mennonite Church.