Interviewee: David Colburn
C: How did you become involved in the St. Augustine crisis?
S: Well, by becoming one, by being one of the principals in the Civil Rights
movement with Dr. King and Abernathy and Lowery, and the others ...
S: And we felt that it was unnecessary in my view movement by the, then ... known
personalities of the movement put in an appearance.
C: Were you still in Birmingham at the time?
C: I see.
S: Well, no, I was in Tallahassee, was in sixty--
C: St. Augustine was '64.
S: '64 I was living in Cincinnati. My relatives were there but I was still in
Birmingham. Had charge of the Alabama Christian Movement and I was in
Birmingham more than here because I had so many legal cases to resolve.
E: Right, right. Just out of curiosity, background ... you were affiliated with what
church in Birmingham?
S: I was pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in North Birmingham, which was
C: Right. And, you were the chief organizer of the
Birmingham . the demonstrations, is that correct? In '63?
S: One of them.
C: One of them. Okay. Why, how did SCLC get involved in St. Augustine, do you
S: Well, I think it was Dr. Hayling then. Now, he was the head of the local Civil
Rights group there, and requested to come down. And, of course, all those
requests go to Dr. King and the board, you see. And the decision was reached
to go down. I guess they started off sending the staff in and then the principals
started going in.
C: Who were the SCLC leaders in St. Augustine? The ones who were directly in
S: Well, let's see. Hosea Williams was one, because he and I led several nights
marches there. C.T. Vivian was one. He and I led the march, one of the
marches which went to the river. We went swimming when the desegregation
order was being ... go ahead.
C: What was SCLC after in St. Augstine, do you think?
S: Well, generally what we would be after in everything, to alert people, to get
people to move on toward their rights. I think here the beaches were segregated
and the restaurants and so forth were segregated, and of course, there was the
Klan riding around at this local sheriff's deputy possee and so forth, so we had to
do all of that, so we come up police brutality there and human rights.
C: Um hum. Was there an attempt to keep pressure on Congress with the '64 Civil
Rights Act being considered at that time?
S: Yes, yes, definitely.
C: When did you arrive in St. Augustine?
S: I really don't know. I went down, I went down several times. Come in and stay a
day or two and participate and drive back. Both to Birmingham and Cincinnati.
C: What was the idea behind the night marches?
S: Well, we figured that daytime marches had special value, but that to do it at night
would create more attention, that is ...
S: ... keep the community at unrest it decided to do something about it, and they
had to be more protective and so forth so on. And I might tell you that the police
in themselves were nervous and scared even though they had guns and dogs.
C: Yeah. How would you compare, just out of curiosity, St. Augustine to
S: Well, the worst riot I ever was in my life was in St. Augustine, Florida, around that
flea market. That was atrocious, vicious. I think that was that because the police
had allowed their climbing together and get there .. whet up their appetite, like
the Indian used to do a war party-type situation, you know.
S: And sit up on defenseless and helpless people that night there. But Birminham,
by far, was the more difficult and dangerous situation continuously because of
the residual effects of the Klan because of the atent and patent abuse of human
rights by the police, by the courts, by everything else. There we did have a
federal Judge, who took charge and followed this thing from day to day, and
when we were in the court, he would leave. Evidently, Hoss Manuey was the one
who arrested me. Manucy was the head of the Klan then. I didn't know until I
had been Jailed that night with those Jewish rabbis and I was looking at it on TV.
I said, that's the guy that arrested me.
C: [Laughing.] So, was St. Augustine more violent, do you think, than Birmingham
S: No, I can't say it was more violent ...
S: I just said that particular riot. St. Augustine was not violent expect for that riot
that night and then one on the beaches where we went to the beaches and the
Klan opened up for us to come in and swim. Of course we had no intention of
swimming--getting out there in deep water and getting drowned, and most of our
people were children.
S: So I said to C. T. Vivian, I said ... they said, come on in, niggers. Said, all right,
we're coming, and we would go and head toward the water, you knows. They
were taunting us and we were just, you know, chatting back. You all got the right
to swim, dammit come in. I said, all right, we'll be there. Just don't worry about
it. Get back so we can come in. Open up. So they got back further out in the
water and opened up a space between them, I guess, for us to come in there and
swim, I guess, which would be about twenty, fifteen or twenty yards. They were
up to breast or shoulder deep in the water. And so I said to C. T. Vivian, we must
go into the water, but we ain't going as far as they are, because I can't swim and
I sure am not going to take the responsibility for drowning these kids. So we
quietly passed the word back through the line, as I remember that incident.
Follow us. Do what we do. So the Klan that welcomed us come in, so they got
even further back. Just means that less people got hurt or drowned, hurt that
day. They got further back, so we went, just as we were going into the day.
They got further back, so we went, just as we were going into the water, going
straight to it, then as soon as we went, just as we were going into the water,
going straight to it, then as soon as we got about ankle-deep, I said, left face, and
we all started to turn back, coming out of the water. And the Klansmen ran,
some of them, hit two or three. Then the policemen moved in to break it up and
this was another vicious situation.
C: What were the ...
S: One policemen was up on top of a car, bashing heads, at those times, with billy
sticks. And they were trying to get to him to kill him. They were mad because
we had the right to swim.
C: Did--how were the police in St. Augustine? We they very helpful?
S: Well, I think they were helpful when they had to be.
S: You know, they didn't particularly cherish patrolling and guarding us. I'm sure
that no policeman likes to beat the head of another white person.
C: That was Sheriff Davis
S: ... they were under orders and I think that the mistake in many of these things is
allowing these people to get so violent and whip their appetites and emotions up
until they have to really spill over into violence. I think that's, that's the key to
most of the problems that broke out in the South, Klan and other things. If you
move people along at a certain time, you might, you know, avert some of the
violence that was done.
C: You, they had these two fellows--Stoner, and Connie Lynch in St. Augstine.
Were they also in Birmingham? They were, Stoner was the Klansman and Lynch
was the ...
S: Yeah, well, I think he lived in Atlanta. I never met them personally. I presume
that they came, you know, the Klansmen had a knack for roaming around, I
guess, for wrong, just like we'd kind of roam around and do for rights. I would
C: Yeah. So you never, you never heard them speak or ran into them.
S: No, no. I understand there was a Klan rally there.
C: Yeah, there was.
S: Hailey or somebody went to it and they beat him up. I don't remember who it
C: Well, he rode by and got, he got waylaid by the Klansmen who saw him riding by.
How about the community as a whole? Did you get any cooperation at all from
the white leadership in the community?
S: Not to my knowledge in the community?
S: I don't remember. And then I wasn't in charge of that day-to-day situations like
that. Somebody who was in charge and stayed there awhile like C. T. Vivian or
Hosea Williams or Bernard Lee or Abernathy or some of them would have known
more about that than I would.
C: Yeah. How about success in St. Augustine? Do you-was there a general feeling
that SCLC had gained a victory for the black community in St. Augstine?
S: Well, I'm certain that, yes, of course we had the contributors, by getting the legal
victims, by getting the Klan defused, by ...
C: The Civil Rights Act was, of course, passed.
S: And I want to go back. There were some white people who came, who
cooperated, but I think these, most of them were whites who came from without.
And then we had the priest, the rabbis, who went to jail with us who considered it
an honor in those days to go jail with the priest. And some others. There was
one girl, a white girl I believe who was from the local community. I'm not sure. I
can't be sure if they were. I don't want to give the impression there was
absolutely no white cooperation, but I think most of it, as, there as in other
places, came from the outside.
C: Talked about the federal movement? Were they very helpful?
S: Well, in moving the court situation. See, we had gotten from Birmingham and
Montogomery and Sela, we had gotten the federal government enforcing agent of
the government involved, so they could move into court quickly and get people
that law enforcement officials would do their duty. Now, that was by far the most
S: In enforcing rights, see.
S: The justice department moved pretty quickly there.
C: Was the justice department, say, as cooperative as it had been in Birmingham or
were they very cooperative in Birmingham?
S: Well, I think they were, they were cooperative to the limit of their thin understand
as to what the role of the justice department should be in the government, you
know. I wonder why none of FBI agents couldn't do anything expect stand up
and look and take notes.
S: Martin Luther King used to kick me when he'd stand there, take notes, great note
takers. He'd tell you exactly how many blows you took before you fell.
[Laughing.] But then under Robert Kennedy, you see, and Teddy Kennedy the
department began to move actually and get the agents involved a little bit more.
Of course, within limits.
S: Always deferring to local officials to using marshals when they had to. They
insure that the agents would not just stand by and see anybody get killed, you
C: How did, how did SCLC decide where, what communities to go into in a particular
S: Well, that's usually the board and staff decision.
C: And so they'd have a bunch of letters from various communities ...
S: Or request and phone calls. People would community directly with Dr. King. You
didn't just get a letter and go into a community. You had to have some close-up
conversation and really get the feel that, that something is needed, and then here
is someplace we could go where we could make a is needed, and then here is
someplace we could go where we could make a witness which would be both
moving, moving and meaningful. And could be seen by the country as getting
some things won, you Know.
C: Right. So did they try to go with one major community?
S: Yes. Well, we didn't be in two, three places at one time.
C: Okay. Was that decided from the start really to go with one community, say, as
to Montgomery, or was that a later decision?
S: Do what?
C: Was it decided early on in history of the SCLC to go with one community or did
that sort of develop after you tried several communities and found that it didn't
work that way?
S: Well, the limitations in staff and what we could do, Dr. King's time, mine, Ralph
Abernathy and others, were meeded at many speaking engagments, just almost
synthesized that we had to limit and concentrate ourselves on one basic job at a
time. Now there would be follow-up in one community or there might be people,
some as staff and some going in to other communities, speaking and doing
things and encouraging people. Or even some of us could be doing that, but the
major activity had to be confined because of resources to basically one area at a
C: Was there a real feeling or fear in SCLC that it was very important to keep the
movement non-violent so that violence wouldn't spread among the black America
S: Oh, definitely, we felt that by all means. And wish that it could have been kept
that way. We wish that the country could have responded to nonviolence before
this violent content became evident and too many people hurt and go jail records
and disillusioned on this false concept of black power and so forth.
C: I was wondering, how old were you in 1963? Forty [in] '64 ?
S: Well, I had to be, let's see, I was born in '22, so you subtract. Probably forty-two
C: And how did you, how did you become involved in the Civil Rights Movement
S: Well, that's a long story but it can be shortened by saving when I went to Bethel
Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in '63, I immediately started dealing in
my own church and voting registration and community progress, and I was real .
a driving force then. I got other members of the community to do the same, and
then I worked with Civic League across Jefferson Country. Became known that
S: And then I was good, a pretty good speaker and I was invited to do the NAACP
Emancipation address. The first year, I think two years straight they elected me
as membership chairman, which gave me access to people because I was
already known. And then I was membership chairmen when NAACP was
outlawed in 1956, in May. Now, also, before this or during this time, before I
was elected membership chairmen, the first big headline, I guess I got it in
Birmingham, was that when I got fifty-five minister to sign for Negro police, fill out
their Negroes at that time. In '55, that was a little bit before the MIA stared its
boycott. So that's how I got involved and of course, with the funding of my...with
the outlawing of the Alabama ... of the NAACP in Alabama, of course I called a
mass meeting June 5, 1966, and organized the local movement and then went
on to national meeting and many a group still does meet, and then, and we
started attacking segregation. My philosophy was that the best defense was a
great offense and if all segregation. My philosophy was perhaps best being used
in situations when the orangizers filed their first lawsuit contending . . One of
the men said to me, now we've got that thing started, let's sit back and see how
that comes out. I immediately said to him without thinking too well that we had to
continue to protest. But I mean, put a lot egg because that egg spoils and you've
wasted your chaveer.
But I mean, put a lot of eggs in the basket, somebody will hatch out. And so we
went in railroad station, pashas and,
anything else. The courthouse was when you had to go into massive
demonstrations, be down at the courthouse and decide that the citizens are
going to be down there and desecrate the courteous. Then, we had the bus
situation that started in Montgomery and also into Birmimingham.
C: Is that when you first got to know Dr. king or had you known him?
S: No, I knew him before in Montgomery that same site. We had talked that year
occasionally, but met, naturally, and of course we were there when they
organized that night to start getting together to demonstrate. So then, after
Birmingham became so big, we got started, we had fought and won several legal
victories and they would become pyrrhic victories because the law would be
frustrated by the courts and the judges so that we began talking with SCLC and
others about a confrontation. That's why the massive demonstrations were, we'd
build around, even that people had to be moved enmasse for their rights. That to
confront the system, we had to massively rise up non-violently. And really create
turmoil in the sense to create attention in the community. You can't operate
normally with segregation. And that Birmingham was the best place because of
good climate and having establish as a citadel and because the next thing is
being a type of a strong person, I gusset I . they called me strong. I don't
know what I was, I was a fool maybe. The Klan couldn't run me out. You know,
they burned my house, blew the house down around my head. I didn't run out
and leave town. And I had established a trust among the people whereas if I
ever told them I was going to do any one thing, I would do it, because there was
no doubt that if they people respected and would follow, because the few that
would follow me in danger, you know, they would stick with me, you know. So
that's, that's just a decision to make this massive confrontation in Birmingham
because we said we said in Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.
S: And it did.
C: Right. What, where did you, had you come from before you went to
S: I was born in Montgomery, Alabama, but I didn't...they brought me to Jefferson
Country when I was a Kid, baby. So I was raised up around Birmingham.
Oxmore, about ten miles from Birmingham, all my life in the rural.
C: Had you gone, had to gone to college or religious school?
S: When I was in Biramingham?
S: In '43, in 140, in 1940, I finished high school in Louisville. I married in '41 when I
was 19. Worked for two or three years at the cement plant there. Then I went to
Mobile, Alabama to get started on defense work. Got a job with the government.
The only schooling I'd had beyond high school then was I started going to night
school because I felt the call to the ministry. And the, I worked for the government
until '47 when I quit to go to school at Selma University to begin my college work,
Selma University in Selma, Alabama, the black belt, where we had the '65 voting
riots there. I went there in '47. I began pasturing two churches--one on the east
side, rural church and one on the west side in '48. And then in I was going to
school at Selma University. At that time it became practical for people not with a
degree to get a C certification, and I felt that if I got that along with my two little
churches salaries, I could make a living. So I immediately left Selma University
on the spur of the moment and went to Alabama State. Made very high grades
there for a year, three quarters. While I was there, I commuted back to Selma, to
my local churches, and all of a sudden, the large churches there, the First Baptist
Church, which incidentally, a storm tore it up in January of this year, but, the
minister suddenly left First Baptist Church in October of '50, and I was well-
thought of in the church for coming up there. And the deacons asked me to
temporarily serve until they got ready to send out and get somebody.
'Course I preached there from October until May. Preached every morning and
then go right immediately to my other country churches. And in May they called
me, so I stayed there from May until '50 to '52, and that's how I became, you
know, involved there. And then I went back to Selma University and I'm back
there now. Got my AB degree at Selma that I have, and then I went, commuted
back to Montomery and got my BS degree. In '60 I was on a Master's degree.
So that's, that's where I am now.
C: Right. Who are on the board of directors of the SCLC? Besides Dr. Aber--
Reverend Abenathy ...
S: I don't know. You'd have to get some of the minutes because there's a lot of
S: David from Louisiva, Anderson from Baton Rouge...
C: How often do they meet, once a year?
S: Johnson from Mississippi. The board meets in April, and SCLC meets in August.
at a convention.
C: I see. Okay, well, listen, I thank you for your time.
S: All right.
C: And I really appreciate the information.
S: Okay, if there's any publication, you know, write the group, give me a copy of it.
C: I certainly will.
S: What's your name again?
C: David Colburn, C-O-L-B-U-R-N. I'm at the University of Florida.
C: University of Florida.
S: And you're doing this for what?
C: I'm writing a book for Columbia University Press.
S: Oh, Okay.
C: On the St. Augustine Civil Rights crisis.
S: All right.
C: And I'll send you a copy.
S: Would you?
C: When I finish. Sure will.
S: Thank you.
C: Thanks for your time. Bye.
[End of the interview.]