A civil rights reunion

Oct 10, 2018 by

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While on the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., J. Lawrence Burkholder participated in an integration effort on March 31, 1964, in Saint Augustine, Fla., which made headlines in newspapers across the country.

He was with (Mary) Malcolm Peabody, the wife of a retired Episcopalian bishop and mother of Massachusetts Governor Endicott Peabody; Hester Campbell, whose husband, Donald J. Campbell was dean of Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge; and five local black women including Nellie Mitchell, Lillian Roberson, Georgia Reed, Cuter Eubanks and Rosalie Phelps.

After meeting at the office of Robert Hayling, a black dentist, all of them were driven to the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge for lunch, knowing they would be arrested since blacks were not allowed to served at this restaurant. Soon after seating themselves, police arrived and took them in a black car and a police car to the St. Johns County Jail.

Peabody, Campbell and the five local women spent one night in the jail. They were released the next day most likely because of overcrowding since many students on spring break from the North had also been arrested for other kinds of protesting in the city. Burkholder, however, spent three nights in the jail before being released to return to Boston.

Janet Burkholder Friesen and Myrna Burkholder at the St. Johns County Detention Center. — Myrna Burkholder

Janet Burkholder Friesen and Myrna Burkholder at the St. Johns County Detention Center. — Myrna Burkholder

Of the five women arrested that day, Roberson is the only one still living. She is 88 years old and living nearby in Jacksonville, Fla. It was the privilege of Myrna Burkholder and Janet Burkholder Friesen, daughters of J. Lawrence Burkholder, to be able to have lunch with her in St. Augustine on Sept. 6. Also present were ACCORD Civil Rights Museum project manager Gwendolyn Duncan, historian and author David Nolan, ACCORD secretary Julia Heckendorn and Roberson’s son Gary.

As for Roberson’s involvement in the sit-in in 1964, she said it was only one of many civil rights activities in which she was involved, some of which preceded the landmark Civil Rights Act enacted a few months later on July 2.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark civil rights and labor action outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations. The legislation was proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, but was opposed by a filibuster in the Senate. After the assassination of Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed the bill forward and was passed by Congress and signed into law by Johnson.

Burning need for justice

Roberson’s civil rights involvement is most impressive. Her home was fire-bombed and burned to the ground by the KKK on Feb. 7, 1964, after she and her husband sent the three oldest of their four sons — ages 5, 7, and 10 — to the local all-white Fullerwood School. The family survived the fire, but shortly thereafter Roberson’s husband, Bungum Roberson, was fired from his job at a Ford dealership. All that remains from the burning of their home are three moss-covered brick steps.

Roberson believed as a parent that the strongest way to “fight back” against racial inequalities was by “getting degrees.” Her oldest son, Michael, who lives in Texas, served in the military and is retired from having been a paralegal. Her second son, Gary A., who lives near her, was a certified mechanic and is retired from owning a trucking company. Her third son is retired from the Air Force and as an air traffic controller in Indianapolis. Her youngest son, Henry, died in a truck accident in 1982 while in college.

Roberson was preceded in her civil rights efforts by her parents, Henry (1923-1994) and Katherine Twine (1925-2002). Henry served as a postman and Katherine worked as a nurse at Flagler Hospital. Twine was president of the NAACP in St, Augustine, served a decade on the city commission, and became the first black vice-mayor of St. Augustine. The couple participated continuously in civil rights activities in the city.

It was after the funeral of Katherine Twine that a group of friends decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, the result of which was the opening of the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum in the Hayling’s former dentist office.

Janet Burkholder Friesen, center, and Myrna Burkholder meet with Lillian Roberson and her son Gary A. Roberson Sept. 6 at the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum in St. Augustine, Fla. — Myrna Burkholder

Janet Burkholder Friesen, center, and Myrna Burkholder meet with Lillian Roberson and her son Gary A. Roberson Sept. 6 at the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum in St. Augustine, Fla. — Myrna Burkholder

Now on display at the museum is the letter Burkholder wrote to his wife, Harriet, while incarcerated in jail in 1964. The letter describes his experience being arrested and incarcerated, and is accompanied by a copy of a newspaper clipping. Those items are joined by a copy of Burkholder’s recently published memoir Recollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century, published in 2016 by the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.

While Roberson’s demeanor today is one of humility and graciousness, she is leaving behind a legacy of determination and dedication to the 21st century civil rights movement in the U.S.


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