James Jackson knew the code. Keep your head down. Move to the grass if White people approached on the sidewalk. Don’t say anything to the graybeards playing checkers.
Jackson was getting tired of keeping quiet. He had recently joined the NAACP Youth Council, which in sleepy, touristy St. Augustine had awakened that summer under the leadership of Robert Hayling, a Black dentist.
Hayling had seen youth spark the Birmingham movement in May, brooking the blasts from the fire hoses and the jaws of the German shepherds. Their courage had inspired change. In June, President John F. Kennedy called racism a “moral issue” and pledged to introduce a national civil rights bill.
Young folks in St. Augustine caught the fire, Jackson among them. He was a wiry, spirited 18-year-old. He and his friends picketed downtown businesses that summer. Outraged, the city’s segregationist leaders applied all kinds of pressure to silence the kids.
Maybe it was his downward gaze that allowed Jackson to see the scrap of paper scrabbling by in the wind. Picking it up, he unfurled it and stared in disbelief. It was a handbill advertising a Ku Klux Klan rally that night, just south of town in a clearing in the woods behind the Southgate Bowling Lanes off U.S. Route 1. “All white people” were welcome.
Heart pounding, Jackson headed to Hayling’s dental office, half a mile away in Lincolnville. Thrusting the paper at him, Jackson said, “Doc, Doc, you have to see this!”
Measured, cerebral, Hayling took a look. He reeled in two neighbors from the adult NAACP, James Hauser and Clyde Jenkins. From fishing trips, Hauser knew the area of the rally well. He said they could observe the rally from a distance, and if there was trouble, he could get them out on a side path.
Jackson pleaded to go along. Hayling reluctantly agreed.
‘A little spy work’
Meanwhile, an hour south in Daytona Beach, the Elephant was brooding. Irv Cheney’s sister, Lelia, had coined the nickname because of the pastor’s astonishing memory. Things that flowed through the colander of other minds just stuck in his head. It was his great gift but also, at times, his burden.
He was troubled by a recollection from his mostly happy childhood in Washington, Ga., in the 1920s and ’30s. He saw his beloved maid, Maud, breaking a twig from an oak tree to brush her teeth. Learning she made only $2.50 a week for all the cooking, cleaning and child care, Irv approached his mom to ask why. “Well, precious,” she said, “they just have a different standard of living.”
Then there were the haunts from the Southern Baptist Church, which used to be his North Star. He had followed it to seminary and to the leadership of three separate churches in Louisiana. While in Baton Rouge in 1961, he had signed a public letter supporting racial tolerance. To some in his congregation, this was heresy. In a neighborhood where Confederate flags flapped freely, he hung an American flag; that night, he was awakened by a phone call around midnight: “So … our flag’s not good enough for you?”
Hauling his family out of Louisiana, he left the Southern Baptists behind. He landed at the more liberal — if still segregated — First Congregational Church of Daytona Beach in January 1962 and began leading an interracial group called the Halifax Area Council on Human Relations. Though he did not attend the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, he couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of hope about race relations in America.
On Saturday, Sept. 14, he got in his black Dodge Phoenix and headed toward Alabama. The next day, he planned to attend morning services at a Black church in Birmingham pastored by one friend, then deliver the installation sermon at a White church for another.
Arriving in Birmingham that Sunday morning, he came upon an apocalyptic scene. Dark smoke billowing from the 16th Street Baptist Church, just a few blocks away. People gasping and screaming. A report of four young girls dynamited to death.
Cheney, the father of three young girls — Jeannie, June and Joy — was heartsick.
Now, three days later, he sat in his office in Daytona Beach trying to tap out the right words for the next Sunday’s sermon. They weren’t coming easily. Then the phone rang.
“Irv, it’s Gene,” said Eugene Tillman, pastor of a nearby Black church. “We need somebody with a pale complexion and a Southern accent to go do a little spy work for us.”
There was trouble brewing in St. Augustine. A Klan rally. Could Irv get some intel?
So it came to pass that James Jackson and Irv Cheney converged on the same speck of the planet on that Wednesday night.
Four beaten Black bodies
Cheney arrived first, waved in by children selling Confederate car tags. He surveyed the scene. The crowd of more than 300, many in robes. The smoldering cross swathed in burlap. The biting voice of Connie Lynch, the improbably named Klan “minister” from California.
Lynch raged about Jews and Black people (using a slur) “who tried to take away everything that the White man had.” Hours after Martin Luther King Jr. had eulogized the dead in Birmingham, Lynch claimed they weren’t little girls at all: “They’re 14 or 15 years old — old enough to have venereal diseases, and I’ll be surprised if all of ’em didn’t have one or more.”
From the clearing off Route 1, Jackson and his companions leaned in to listen. A vehicle approached. Scrambling back to the car, they sought Hauser’s escape route. But the rains from the day before made it impassable. Accosted by sentries, they were forced out of the car and marched into the rally at gunpoint.
Fists flailed. Blackjacks swung. When someone recognized Hayling, rallygoers started bashing in his teeth. Jackson was clubbed in the back of the head with a lug wrench. A female voice yelled, “Castrate the bastards!”
Stunned and sickened, Cheney saw the blood flowing and realized he had to act. Backing away as quietly as possible, he reached his car and “dug dirt.” When he got to a pay phone, he called the office of St. Johns County Sheriff, L.O. Davis. Cheney reported the crisis to a deputy, adding that he would also call the adjutant general in Tallahassee and the FBI in Jacksonville. When he finished the calls, he quickly drove back to the dirt road by the bowling alley, fearing it was too late.
At the rally, Lynch stood on the platform, glaring down at four beaten Black bodies, stacked on top of one another. He dispatched someone to get kerosene.
Bleeding, woozy, filled with fear, Jackson wondered if he were about to die.
Then he heard Sheriff Davis say, “Okay, that’s enough.”
Several minutes later, Cheney saw a green patrol car emerge onto the road. There were four Black men in the back — still moving.
He drove back to Daytona Beach, too wound up to sleep. The combination of the Birmingham blast and the Klan rally just a few days apart felt like hell on earth. He typed out every detail he could remember, five pages, single-spaced.
He would soon hand it over to state NAACP Director Robert Saunders, and Cheney’s account — coupled with corroborating testimony from the victims — would become a crucial part of the historical record.
Clashes at the Slave Market
There would be more racial violence in St. Augustine in the months ahead. The home of Hayling — charged and convicted of assaulting a Klan member at the rally — was shot up in February, killing his dog and narrowly missing his pregnant wife. The home of a school-integrating Black family was torched. There were nightly clashes at the Slave Market in late spring, some fueled by speeches by Connie Lynch.
With the Civil Rights Act being filibustered in the Senate, King arrived in St. Augustine in mid-May, in part to highlight the persistence and brutality of racial injustice. His rented cottage was shot up and vandalized. He wired President Lyndon B. Johnson, “All semblance of law and order has broken down in St. Augustine.” In June, he was arrested and jailed for trying to order food at a Whites-only restaurant.
The Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2. In time, the daily intensity of the racial fight waned in St. Augustine. Hayling, his practice ruined, left for Cocoa, 120 miles south, in 1965. Cheney visited a couple of times, and Hayling tried to persuade him to get involved politically, saying White people needed to do more. Cheney declined, saying that was not his style for creating change. “I liked him so much and admired him so much,” Cheney now says. “He was always gracious to me, and he was always disappointed in me. … He was far ahead of where I would have been if I were in his place.”
Cheney soon left his church — and all organized religion. He spent most of his career working for the federal government on social programs like the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America. From time to time, he was asked by reporters about his role in civil rights, generally, and the Klan rally, in particular. He batted away these requests. He had no interest in the attention.
Even with his family, he demurred. His daughter Joy was 9 at the time of the Klan rally but didn’t know about it for years — and only then because her mother told her.
Grappling with history
Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city. It is named for a Black man, a 4th-century bishop in what is now Algeria.
When James Jackson, 77 and a lifelong St. Augustinian, stands at the Plaza these days, he sees a city built on history, marketed on history, but struggling to come to terms with the darkest chapters in its history.
He sees the armada of tour buses circling the Plaza. Some of the tour guides refer to the Slave Market; others avoid the term, opting to describe it as “the very first place in all the United States ever to use a standard weights and measurement system.”
Beside the Slave Market now stands a modest sculpture celebrating heroes of local civil rights. The Confederate monument is no longer there; in the summer of 2020, after 10 hours of contentious public comment, city commissioners voted 3-2 to remove it from the Plaza.
A half mile away, a small civil rights museum, open only occasionally, occupies the former dental office of Hayling, who died in December 2015.
Jackson is the lone survivor among the four victims of the 1963 Klan beating. He’s no longer the feisty young activist who, with his head bandaged shortly after the rally, drove Hayling’s Volkswagen convertible with the top down around and around the Plaza to show, as he said in a recent interview, “You may have beat me, but you have not run me off.”
In his adult years, Jackson worked for Southern Bell as a phone repairman, encountering racism on some service calls, kindness on others. He very rarely spoke about his ordeal with the Klan in public. But in recent years, particularly with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, he started speaking up again to local media. An article appeared last month in the St. Augustine Record, accompanied by a video recorded a few years prior.
In Louisiana, Irv Cheney’s daughter Joy Hammatt stumbled upon the video after reading an online article story that mentioned the Klan incident. She had known about Hayling but didn’t know Jackson’s name and was startled to see that one of the Klan victims was still alive. On a whim, she contacted the Record and got Jackson’s phone number. He was stunned to hear from her. Hammatt shared with Jackson what she knew about the story. Then she made another call.
“Dad,” she began, “I really hope you’re not going to be angry at me.”
The phone call
Two days later, Cheney dialed Jackson’s number. It was the first time the two men had ever spoken. Almost 60 years had passed since fate had cast them together.
The call sent them careening back to a painful time and place. An old Black man and an older White man tried to grapple with their own piece of complicated history.
They spoke for half an hour, sharing their perspectives on that fateful night, and a little bit about their journeys since.
For Jackson, the conversation snapped some puzzle pieces together. He now believes that Sheriff Davis was likely at the rally the whole time and interceded only after news of Cheney’s phone calls had been radioed to him.
“I believe that man would have let those people kill us,” Jackson told The Post a few days later.
Even a few days after the fact, Jackson was still amazed to see Cheney resurface in his life. “I’d always wondered who that individual was to go and make that call to the Sheriff’s Department,” Jackson said.
Jackson thanked Cheney “very dearly.” If not for Cheney, he said, “I would not be alive today.”
For his part, Cheney said, the call “gave me goose bumps,” and “it seemed so strange to return to that night, to such a hard but significant part of life — for both of us.”
At 95 and recently widowed, he lives alone in a retirement community north of Atlanta. Over the years, he has watched America’s waves of progress and backlash about race. He keeps up with the news and marvels that his home state elected both Raphael Warnock and Marjorie Taylor Greene. He still doesn’t get too involved in politics, but from time to time he clips a large Stacey Abrams button to his plaid shirts.
He still has a resonant bass drawl, an infectious cackling laugh, and a memory for the ages. To that memory he now fondly adds the call with Jackson.
But as for his role on that long ago September night, Cheney wants no part of any “White savior” discussion. He is emphatic that people are complicated, that “no one is all one thing or another,” that “I’m not a bad person, but I did some things I wish to hell I hadn’t done.” He says he just responded with basic humanity — that he “had no other choice.”
He knows it was overwhelmingly Black people who fought for equality — that people like Robert Hayling and James Jackson deserve most of the credit for whatever progress has been made.
Last week, Jackson was recognized. On Monday at City Hall, he was on hand as Mayor Tracy Upchurch delivered a proclamation honoring Black History Month, which read in part:
“WHEREAS, during 1963 and 1964 many people from all walks of life, young and old, black, and white, from St. Augustine and afar, participated in the struggle for racial equality in St. Augustine further deepening the roots of over 450 years of African American history in the City …”
Jackson stepped to the front of the room, near the American flag, to receive a copy of the proclamation and accept the congratulations of the five city commissioners. His comments were brief:
“I got involved in the rights movement due to the fact that I’ve always thought an injustice to one man, one day, will carry over to the next man. I was just seeking justice and equality for my people in these United States.
“And when I’m saying ‘United States,’ listen to me. We have got to get that word back into the USA—‘united.’ Because divided, we will fall.”