From NewYork Times Dec 23/2020 Remembering some of the artists, innovators and thinkers we lost in the past year.
Jones, in front, as the manager pours in a cleaning agent, 1964. Horace Cort/Associated Press
From a young age, she understood the power of public resistance.
By Maggie Jones
When Mimi Jones was 17, she leapt into a Florida swimming pool, expecting trouble. It was June 1964 in St. Augustine, a tourist town heavy with humidity and hate. The Ku Klux Klan and others harnessed guns, firebombs, death threats, clubs and fists against Black demonstrators protesting segregation. The police relied on cattle prods and German shepherds. Days before, Jones and at least a dozen other activists traveled 250 miles by bus from Albany, Ga., to take part in the demonstrations. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had labeled St. Augustine — where the Rev. Andrew Young was brutally beaten, where King and hundreds of others were arrested — as the most “lawless” city he had worked in. It was the only place where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s hospital bills exceeded its food and lodging bills.
Jones (whose name at the time was Mamie Ford) did not scare easily. Serious and determined, a straight-A student, she had just finished her junior year of high school but was already a civil rights veteran. Starting at around 15, inspired by her minister, the Rev. Samuel B. Wells, a formidable leader who oversaw an army of teenage activists, she knocked on doors and chatted on porches, encouraging people to register to vote. She taught reading to illiterate Black Georgians so they could pass poll literacy tests, and she demonstrated at the Dairy Queen and other establishments that either were segregated or refused to hire Black people. Throughout her teens, she was arrested again and again.
In the spring of 1964, the Civil Rights bill, which would end segregation in public places and ban employment discrimination, was stalled in the Senate. Hosea Williams, a brash, fearless S.C.L.C. tactician (King affectionately called him “my wild man”) had an idea: a swim-in at the segregated Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine. It would draw attention and, hopefully, help push through the bill. Civil rights activists had been protesting in the city for weeks, and the police had recently arrested King and others for trying to enter the Monson’s whites-only restaurant. The location was ideal for a movement dependent on public sympathy and outrage: Near lots of foot traffic, the hotel was also a favorite among out-of-town journalists.
The plan was simple: Two white activists would rent a room and then invite Black swimmers as their pool “guests.” But when Williams announced it at a church meeting hall, few Black hands went up. Many of them didn’t know how to swim.
For decades, Black people had been banned from public pools and whites-only beaches. Jones and her 13 siblings, however, grew up near several creeks in southwest Georgia. Jones learned to swim in one and was baptized by Wells in another. Now in St. Augustine, Jones and her younger sister Altomease volunteered.
Around 12:45 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, Jones and a group of Black demonstrators — including 22-year-old J.T. Johnson, who had been a lifeguard in Albany, and Brenda Darten, 21, who was expelled from Albany State College for protesting — climbed out of two cars in front of the pool.
Jones and the others hopped over a low chain fence surrounding the pool and plunged in, joining the two white demonstrators. A few moments later, James Brock, the hotel manager, arrived, in his dark sunglasses, a pencil tie and a brow furrowed in anger. He had just finished waging another battle across the parking lot, shoving rabbis and other protesters in front of his restaurant into waiting police cars.
At the pool, the swimmers chatted and splashed around, ignoring Brock. “The water’s fine, isn’t it?” one of them called out. Brock grabbed two plastic jugs of muriatic acid, a cleaning agent, and began circling the pool, shaking the liquid into it. Drops landed near Jones and Darten’s heads. Jones could feel the fumes in her nose and eyes.
By then a cadre of cops was also trying to rid the pool of Black bodies. A deputy sheriff suggested calling in the dogs. Another police officer smacked his baton against the water, trying to force the swimmers out. Then Henry Billitz, an off-duty cop, jumped into the pool, fully dressed, save for his socks and shoes. He swung at Al Lingo, one of the white protesters; another person hit Peter Shiras, the other white swimmer, as he left the pool. Within minutes the police arrested the entire group. Jones was charged with “deliberate disturbance of the peace,” “malicious trespassing” and “conspiracy.” She was hauled off to jail in her pale checkered one-piece bathing suit with spaghetti straps, soaking wet.
Jones didn’t know it then, but in less than 24 hours photos of her would land on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers. One showed Billitz suspended in midleap above the water and the swimmers’ heads. In the other, Jones held onto Lingo as Brock poured acid behind her, her mouth open wide, as if in midscream.
After seeing the photos, President Lyndon Johnson told an adviser: “Our whole foreign policy and everything else will go to hell over this!” That same day, the Senate finally voted to pass the Civil Rights bill.
Jones would leave the South — after helping to desegregate Albany High School in her senior year — for college and eventually to marry and raise a son and to champion education, immigrants and the poor. It wasn’t until her late 60s that Jones returned to St. Augustine, this time for the filming of Clennon L. King’s documentary “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement That Transformed America.” One of her first stops was the pool. The Monson Motor Lodge was now a Hilton, and the old pool had been replaced with a new one. Standing beside it, she slipped off her boots and dipped her toes in. She wanted to feel the water again. This time without fear.
Maggie Jones is a contributing writer for the magazine and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.