In 1964, during the debate in Congress around the Civil Rights Act, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to keep pressure on lawmakers and expose segregation throughout the south. One of King’s deputies, Hosea Williams, was tasked with finding elderly Bostonians to support the movement. One Bostonian, 72-year old Mary Parkman Peabody, wife of the former Bishop of Central New York and the mother of Endicott Peadbody, the then Governor of Massachusetts, flew to St. Augustine, Florida, and wound up being arrested for protesting segregation:
She spent two nights in the local jail before her youngest son, Malcolm, was allowed to bail her out. Samuel Peabody says he got word a week later, when he returned from a trip abroad:
“I was not told about it at all. What surprised me was I saw my mother on the front page of every newspaper in the country!” he recalls. “Or at least every newspaper where I was at the time.” (Southern newspapers were the exception, for obvious reasons.) The picture of Mary Peabody, with a proper handbag and pearls, her white hair topped by an ever-present hat, made national news…
Black St. Augustine residents had been working to break segregation for years before Mary Peabody’s arrival, but her presence in March 1964 made their struggles visible. Malcolm Peabody says his mother knew her job wasn’t the same as black local protesters, and was aware she played a very specific role:
“She did not face the danger that so many of them did, but the fact that she was able to generate the publicity made her special.”
That publicity was a catalyst for other demonstrations soon after, some of them quite violent. The St. Augustine Movement would become known as one of the most critical — and until recently, one of the least-known — campaigns in the civil rights history.
Read about and listen to the rest of the story on NPR.