As a young civil rights activist in Florida in 1964, Bill Maxwell experienced danger, despair—and hope.

By Bill Maxwell

I was an 18-year-old, a second-semester college freshman in 1964, arguably the most pivotal year of the civil rights movement.

Race issues dominated the news, and leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Committee had become household names.

The dynamism of the movement convinced me that my generation of college students would eliminate racial injustice in the United States, and I wanted to be part of it. Like thousands of other Black students, I became a civil rights activist.

My official activism, for which I received a stipend from an organization, began in January 1964, after a Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizer spoke at my school, Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The organizer said volunteers were desperately needed in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama.

Because I was a Floridian and had participated in the 1961 demonstrations, called “wade-ins,” that were responsible for racially integrating Fort Lauderdale Beach, the organizer asked me to join volunteers in St. Augustine where white violence against Black people was increasing.

My classmate, Curtis Dunn, was from nearby Hastings and had a car, so the organizer asked us to become a traveling team. We took leave of school and drove to St. Augustine. Curtis arranged for us to live in a decrepit mobile home owned by one of his relatives.

St. Augustine had been a racial hot spot since July 1963, when 16 local Black teenagers held a sit-in protest at the segregated Woolworth lunch counter. They were arrested and four, who became known as the St. Augustine Four, were sentenced to six months in Florida’s notorious reform school.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had recently called St. Augustine “the most racist city in America.” King’s words may have been hyperbolic—but not so much. Nearly all Black people were forced to live in the neighborhood known as Lincolnville. It was named for President Abraham Lincoln, and it was settled by former slaves.

When Lincolnville residents ventured outside and tried to enjoy the city’s amenities, such as public parks and swimming pools, law enforcement was called in to arrest them, sometimes brutally.

Although the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education had determined that separate-but-equal schools were unconstitutional, by 1964, “America’s Oldest City,” St. Augustine’s official nickname, had only six Black children in integrated schools. The homes of two of those children were burned down by local racists. The parents were fired from their jobs and forced to leave the town and make new lives.

After Curtis and I arrived, we met with the NAACP leader, Dr. Robert Hayling, a dentist who had organized the Woolworth sit-in. He asked us and students from local historically Black Florida Memorial College to help organize more protests that would attract national press coverage and speed up the integration of the city’s businesses and public facilities.

Hayling, the first Black dentist in Florida to be elected to the American Dental Association and a former Air Force officer, was not a pacifist like many other NAACP leaders. He told us that he believed in armed resistance and advised us to always carry a weapon, especially at night. He said we should defend our homes with guns if forced to.

“The police are Klansmen and Crackers in police uniforms,” he said. “Don’t trust any of them, and don’t believe a word they say. They’ll kill you.”

He told us about the time he and three other NAACP members had been seized by Klansmen and brutally beaten. 

“A Negro who doesn’t arm himself is a fool,” he told us. “We are armed and will shoot first and answer questions later. We are not going to die like Medgar Evers.”

The next morning, as Hayling had requested, several of us drove to the Black neighborhood, and we talked to dozens of residents, asking them to participate in an “equal rights” demonstration in front of city hall the following week. We got a lot of nodding and smiling.

A male teen dressed like Jimi Hendrix said, “Yeah, I’m going, but it won’t do no good.”

An older man sitting on his front porch rejected our invitation. “I won’t go downtown messing with them KKK white folks,” he declared.

At the end of the day, despite many promises, we had no idea how many Black people would show up.

That night at the SCLC meeting, we met three white volunteers: Aaron Spicer, Harold Martin and Mandy Jorgensen, all college students from New York and all members of the same Unitarian Universalist church. They said they had come to St. Augustine because they had been inspired after reading about Dr. Hayling and the St. Augustine Four in the New York Times. Aaron, a political science major, was writing his thesis on civil rights organizations and leaders.

After the meeting, they invited Curtis and me to have dinner at the house they were renting. It was a great meal with plenty of wine and the Righteous Brothers, The Temptations, The Beach Boys and more playing on the stereo. As we chatted, the front door popped open, and the owner, a distinguished-looking older white man, barged in.

“No niggers and no nigger lovers in my house,” he yelled.

Pointing to the door, he ordered Curtis and me to get out, and he told the three white students to be gone by midnight. They said that they had nowhere to go at such a late hour and asked him to let them stay until morning. He agreed.

Our Worst Nightmare

Curtis and I left immediately, and we kept our eyes peeled driving out of the all-white enclave. As we reached U.S. 1, our worst nightmare came true: A sheriff’s cruiser flashed its lights behind us. Curtis pulled onto the grass and stopped.

Two white deputies walked to our car and ordered us out. We knew the routine: keep our mouths shut and keep our hands at our sides. One deputy inspected our car while the other one checked out Curtis’ driver’s license, registration and tag. He asked why we were in that neighborhood. We watched our words and controlled our attitudes. I said that we were lost and were trying to find State Road 207 to Palatka. Suspicious, he gave us directions.

“Stay out of this side of town, you niggers,” one said.

“Yes, sir,” Curtis and I replied at the same time, then got into our car and drove away, scared and glad to be alive.

Next morning, we met the trio, as we referred to them, at the SCLC office. Not hurting for money, they had rented three motel rooms for two weeks. They joined Curtis and me and several students from Florida Memorial College for the next two days, as we walked door-to-door, informing residents about the upcoming demonstration.

On the third morning, as we got into our cars to drive to a planning meeting, several white men in pickup trucks surrounded us. They beat the trio with their fists, all the while yelling, “Nigger lovers!”

Even when Curtis and I tried to protect the white students, the attackers shoved us aside without hitting us. The brutality was meant for the three whites. The lesson was meant for the three whites, especially Mandy for being with Black men.

Dozens of Black people had observed the beating but dared not intervene. The white attackers got back in their trucks and left. Mandy had gotten the worst of it, and an older woman took her into her shack.

Sipping knotty-head gin, Curtis and I talked much of the night about the beating. The next afternoon, we went to the trio’s motel and found them huddled in a room comforting one another. Their bruises had turned black and blue. I told them that Curtis and I were leaving St. Augustine and going to Lake County where Blacks, some of them my relatives, were unable to register to vote.

We wondered if the trio would stay in Florida or return to New York after their beating. Mandy had felt obligated to telephone her parents and tell them about the attack and her injuries, and her parents wanted to fly down to take her back home. She insisted that she was not leaving Florida yet. The truth was that Aaron, who was her boyfriend, had arranged interviews with Dr. Hayling for his thesis, and she wanted to stay with him.

Harold shocked Curtis and me by announcing he wanted to accompany us to Lake County. We tried to talk him out of it because as Floridians, we knew the danger of two young Black men driving in Lake County with a young white man.

Nearly 200 people showed up for the equal rights demonstration in front of St. Augustine City Hall, and the major TV networks and The New York Times had reporters there. For that reason, law enforcement and the Klan kept their distance as demonstrators, including several rabbis and Unitarian Universalist ministers, marched in front of the building carrying placards, singing and clapping their hands.

Local Black leaders called it a success because of the national press coverage. Dr. Hayling said the ultimate goal of the demonstration, along with others to follow, was to entice Martin Luther King to come to St. Augustine. We celebrated that night at the home of a SCLC member.

The Most Dangerous Place in Florida

Two days after the demonstration, Harold, Curtis and I said goodbye to Aaron and Mandy and drove to the home of my uncle, Fred Maxwell, a Baptist pastor and longtime civil rights leader in Central Florida. He and his wife lived in Orlando, 49 minutes from Tavares, the county seat of Lake County, where our destination, the supervisor of elections office, was located.

During dinner that first night, Fred looked at Harold and half-smiled.

“Son, do you have a death wish?” he asked.

“Death wish?” Harold said.

“What sane, rich white boy from New York City would come down to Florida, especially to Lake County, and risk his life to help Negroes register to vote?”

“It’s my moral duty to be here,” Harold replied. “White people caused all this injustice, and it’s up to white people to change it.” 

I suddenly saw Harold in a new light. Although rich, he was not an airhead looking for adventure among the “others.” He possessed a genuine desire, the intelligence and the courage to try to help make life equitable for everyone.

Fred smiled with genuine respect. The rest of the evening, Fred gave us the lay of the land in Lake County: Racism was a way of life passed down from generation to generation, and violence, including murder, was the main weapon whites used to keep Black people in their place.

The county’s most frightening menace was Willis Virgil “Caboose” McCall, the “high sheriff,” who had been first elected in 1944.

When I lived in Lake County as a child, McCall’s racial atrocities kept my family fearful. One of my uncles used to say, “A Black man’s life ain’t worth maggot puke to McCall.” Many Black men hid at the sight of him. With a pudgy face, McCall was 6 feet 1, weighed 215 pounds and wore size 13 Western boots.

He stomped, kicked and clubbed many Black men into unconsciousness. He kicked one mentally disabled man to death. An Orlando TV reporter said that McCall’s trademark white Stetson hat “cast a dark shadow over Lake County.”

McCall is perhaps best remembered for his 1951 shooting of two Black men, Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin. Shepherd died on the spot. He claimed that the men, who were handcuffed together, had attacked him and had attempted to escape from the backseat of his car as he was taking them to the Lake County jail. They were two of four Black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Groveland. Although the four were exonerated for rape, McCall was never charged with a crime.

Registering to Vote

With that history in mind, Harold, Curtis and I prepared to drive to the supervisor of elections office in Tavares to see firsthand why so few Blacks had ever registered to vote. Fred warned us that we would be in grave danger when McCall heard about us. He was especially afraid for Harold and said that he should always drive, making it appear that he was just transporting Curtis and me, his Black boys, to and from work. It was a sane strategy.

As Harold drove, Curtis and I addressed him as “Massa Harold” and answered “yes, suh” to everything he said. We had some great laughs all the way to Tavares.

Our plan was simple: Curtis and I would stand away from Harold as he went to the counter and asked what he needed to do to register to vote. He did that, and a smiling white woman said he simply had to fill out a form. He thanked her, said he would come back later and walked out.

When Curtis and I stepped to the counter, the woman said, “What do you boys want?” We told her that we wanted to register to vote. She walked away, entered an office and returned with an older white man smoking a cigar.

Like the woman, he wanted to know what we “boys” wanted. We told him that we wanted to register to vote. He said we first had to pass the literacy test. I asked why, and he said because “only literate folks got the right to vote in Lake County.” Actually, the test was only for Black people, and the questions were at the registrar’s choosing, often made up on the spot. One man told me later that he was asked to explain in writing the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He failed. His failure was typical of every Black person we spoke with.

Heeding Uncle Fred’s warning to avoid bringing attention to ourselves, Curtis and I left the building. Harold was waiting for us under a shady oak tree across the parking lot. We told him what had happened.

“I didn’t have to take a test,” Harold said, outraged. “I’m going back in there.”

“And do what?” Curtis asked. “Get your stupid white ass killed?”

“It’s not fair that my white skin—luck of the draw—automatically gives me special privileges,” Harold said. “It’s just not fair.”

I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Let’s get away from here.”

We drove to a honky-tonk I was familiar with, ordered beer and discussed what had happened. Harold was still livid. As the only white person in the place, he attracted a lot of curious stares but nothing else. The barkeep came to our table.

“Two McCall boys buzzing your car,” he said. “Better watch your asses when you leave. Don’t fool with these Crackers.” 

Meeting Satan 

We drove to the home of the NAACP leader, a Methodist pastor who was a friend of my uncle Fred. We shared our experience at the elections office. He told us that getting Blacks registered to vote in the county was next to impossible, acknowledging that a few had succeeded.

He advised us against pushing too hard because the supervisor of elections informed the sheriff of all “agitators” who entered the office. He surprised us when he said that he had not tried to register because he worried about the safety of his church. He was certain that if he ever showed up at the elections office, McCall would have the church burned down.

“Caboose McCall is Satan reincarnated,” he said.

We drove away disillusioned, and after a few blocks, we heard a siren and saw the flashing light of a sheriff’s vehicle behind us. We realized we were being stopped by none other than McCall himself. Obviously, the supervisor of elections had called him, and the deputies who had buzzed our car had put him on our trail.

Harold eased the car onto the shoulder. McCall was alone. Conventional wisdom was that he mostly worked solo to prevent anyone from witnessing his misdeeds. That way, his word was final.

When he stepped from his car, he adjusted his Stetson, grabbed his pistol from the holster, walked to the rear of our car and read the license plate: Texas.

McCall was the only person I had ever met who terrified me on sight. As a 10-year-old living in Groveland, I had seen him beat several Black men into unconsciousness.

He wanted to know why we were at the supervisor of elections office, and I told him that we were moving to Lake County and wanted to know how to register to vote.

“You’re a damned lying nigga,” he said.

Instead of confronting me as I had expected, he pointed his gun at Harold and asked for his driver’s license. Harold reluctantly handed over his license, and McCall studied it and shoved it back.

“Nigga loving Yankee,” he said and backhanded Harold across the face.

Wobbling, Harold stayed on his feet. Curtis and I reached out to help him, but McCall pointed his gun at us, scaring us into stopping. His face bright-red, Harold stepped toward McCall.

“Make another move, it’ll be the last thing you do in this world,” McCall said, pointing his pistol at Harold’s chest.

Harold must have come to his senses because he stopped.

“You shitheads better get out of Lake County and never come back,” McCall said.

Driving to my uncle’s home, we each knew we had been altered. I told my friends that McCall was no longer a larger-than-life figure in my mind. The virulent hatred that possessed him diminished him and made him a caricature of “the most fearsome lawman in America,” as he had been depicted. I realized he was a common bully who had an official platform of authority to carry out his campaign of violence against the most powerless group in America. I could not fear or pity such a creature. I could only despise him.  

Harold nodded. “Racism dehumanizes all of us,” he said. “McCall and these white people think they’re superior, but they’re not. Hatred based on mere skin color is not only unfair; it’s illogical and dooms us all. As a Unitarian, I’m committed to treating all people with respect because all people inherently possess worth and dignity regardless of their skin color. The worst people I’ve met in Florida are white people who have power and are full of hatred.”

He also said that his time in Florida had persuaded him to become a lawyer, and he would work in the service of human and civil rights. I knew it was a genuine commitment.

Curtis said that he needed time to absorb everything Harold and I had said, but he, too, felt liberated.

“I should still be scared, but I’m not,” he said. “McCall went too far. He doesn’t scare me anymore, either.”

We told my uncle that despite McCall’s threats, we wanted to stay for a few more weeks and try to get some people registered to vote. Fred did not try to stop us, but he warned that McCall would kill us if he found out.

We stayed three more weeks without seeing McCall again, and we were certain that we were responsible for getting two Blacks registered to vote. Getting two in Lake County was a miracle, Fred said.

He also said: “Count your blessings McCall didn’t kill you three fools.”

Good News

We drove back to St. Augustine and shared our experiences with Mandy and Aaron. They had good news, having spent several evenings with Dr. Hayling discussing the urgent need to desegregate St. Augustine’s businesses and public facilities. They would remain there, with Harold rejoining them in a few more months to help organize demonstrations. Plus, Mandy said, Martin Luther King was coming, and they were determined to meet and perhaps interview him.

As Curtis and I drove back to Texas, we knew that we had experienced something momentous. Meeting the trio had taught us that winning rights for Black people meant forging cross-racial personal relations. For the first time, we had seen Black and white people of different religions and socioeconomic classes risk their lives for one another. It was life-changing.

“Bill, we met some good white people,” Curtis said.

High Hopes—and Disillusionment

As we returned to campus life, we did not know that 1964 would prove to be a seminal year for the civil rights movement. Indeed, I wondered if the terror we experienced in Florida had been worth it, and I questioned what—if anything—we had accomplished. As the weeks passed and as civil rights events filled the news nationwide, I began to feel better.

On July 2, 1964, The Civil Rights Act passed, prohibiting discrimination in public places, ordering the integration of schools and making employment discrimination illegal. The next summer I watched, with tears in my eyes, as Walter Cronkite of CBS Evening News announced that the Voting Rights Act had passed, empowering millions of Black people to register to vote free of literacy tests and other racist impediments.

I and many other Black people began to believe we were moving into an era of racial acceptance and equal justice. But that hope did not last. Soon the folly of the Vietnam War tore at the nation’s fabric, pitting so-called patriots against anti-war young people. The 1970 massacre at Kent State University, where National Guard troops killed four students and wounded nine others, showed how far the nation had descended into division and disillusionment.

By then, I had lost contact with most of my friends in the civil rights movement. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, all symbols of hope, were gunned down, and the Black Power movement and its acceptance of violence had captured the imagination of most young Black people.   

In the intervening years, political backlash over civil rights has grown, and today, voting rights, including here in the Sunshine State, are again under attack.

I cannot help but conclude that racism continues to plague and diminish our nation, and that the equal justice we risked so much to achieve in the spring of 1964 still eludes us.   

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Bill Maxwell wrote syndicated columns and editorials for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) from 1994 to 2019. He also wrote for The New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. The recipient of many writing awards, he taught English and journalism at colleges in Illinois and Florida and founded the Role Models Today Foundation to support journalism students. University Press of Florida has published a new collection of his columns, Maximum Vantage.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.