Thomas Ford - Jailed at 14 - The Cost of Fighting for the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine

Thomas Ford "TK" and James Jackson civil rights activists at the 2022 silent march in St.
Thomas Ford "TK" and James Jackson civil rights activists at the 2022 silent march in St. Augustine, Florida. 

Growing up in St. Augustine during the Jim Crow era of segregation and during the civil rights movement in St. Augustine is something few of us can relate to, but amongst us, we have many residents, who can still tell the story. Some prefer not to, some still fear retaliation and ask to stay anonymous, but some use their voices to tell the story because they fear it will be forgotten if they do not.

Jailed at 14, beaten, and hunted, that was the reality of Thomas Ford's early teenage years back in the 1960s, and when looking back at that time, Ford wants all of us to know what happened. "You can't put yourself in my place and in the people's place back then," says Ford, "but you just gotta think about it and get deep into some black history and know your roots. Know your roots, know your people, and know where you come from. Know what it was like to live back then in that time."

Thomas Ford, known by his friends and classmates as TK, was a force to be reckoned with on the field, as the star quarterback of Richard J. Murray High School in West Augustine, but before he made it onto the field in high school, he fought for his rights off the field. He fought with non-violence, sit-ins, and marches alongside many of his classmates, relatives, and neighbors in St. Augustine.

Ford grew up on Cerro Street in Lincolnville, and he remembers growing up with Little Links as his backyard, a 9-hole golf course, where the current Eddie Vickers park is located. This was a safe space for many African Americans growing up in the time of separate but equal, and as the civil rights movement took hold of St. Augustine, it also became a gathering place for the youth, a place where they found the courage to fight for their rights. "All of us grew up under Little Links, every kid over town that was in the Lincolnville area had some participation under Little Links. A lot of stuff got organized there before it was moved to Elk's Rest on Washington Street. 

The Elk's Rest Lodge served as a strategy center for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in St. Augustine, and it was here that many rallies got planned.

"I went to jail three times," says Ford, and he starts talking about the first time. "We went down to McCrory's, (McCrory's Five and Dime Store at 158 St. George Street) which was a department store, and we wanted to be served. I guess we got escorted out of there, and they took us to jail. And at that time by us being minors, we had to get our parents to come sign for us, and then they would release us out of jail. Telling us don't come back, but I went back anyhow."

Ford spent two nights in jail the first time he was arrested, and he explains how his mother had to sign him out because his father David Ford Sr. was a part of the civil rights movement. He was a deacon, who prayed over many of the marches in downtown St. Augustine.

Ford says he began realizing that something was wrong in St. Augustine early on. "Probably when we were about five or six when I was out in the streets. At six, we were moving around in the streets, going to school, and then I started seeing things. I had six brothers and two sisters, and I am the baby of nine siblings, so I heard a lot of things coming in my house all the time, even as I was coming up about what was going on in the street, even before I got out there."

Ford explains that many of his older siblings had moved out by the time he was a teenager, getting married and living elsewhere in St. Augustine. 

"Jimmy Jackson, he was one of the guys, and he took me to the first rally. We were all going downtown to the first sit down at McCrory's. He dropped us all off, and we all piled in there to the tables. They refused to serve, and we refused to leave. Then the police came, and we all went off to jail. He didn't go to jail with us, but he went to jail several times. He was always out there. He was kind of like a mentor to me, because my brothers, some of them had moved on out, some of them went to college, some of them were living in other places, when I came along."

James Jackson was an integral part of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine. "I was transporting sit-in demonstrators back and forth downtown to different stores McCrory's, Woolworth's, wherever we were picketing because we only had one or two automobiles available to us," says James Jackson about the time. "We had to have a way to go and transport our picketers and our protestors, and I drove both of those vehicles at different times."

When asked how he felt, when he left the young students at one of the sit-ins, Jackson says. "I thought that we had the young people that were speaking out. They wanted their rights. They wanted their rights, and they were speaking out for it. They were a part of me. This is what I was there for. Not the notoriety, but to go and have my rights."

Martin Luther King Speaking at St. Paul AME Church st. augustine fl
Martin Luther King Speaking at the St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine, FL. Source Associated Press

Thomas Ford was a part of many marches throughout the 1960s in St. Augustine, but there is one march that stands out. On June 25th, 1964, Ford listened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the St. Paul AME Church. "I wasn't inside the church, there were too many people inside. I was outside," he says and explains that he stood outside with a lot of people in the Catholic lot by the Catholic school. "They had every congregation of churches in that church at that time, and they'd come to see Mr. King and hear him speak, so we had to just take a backlash at that time, but you could hear him."

While Ford marched with Dr. King in St. Augustine, he did not do so that night, because the march had been deemed too dangerous for King to participate. 

More than 300 people walked in the march that night, and as they approached the plaza, the attack began. "People started moving everywhere. It was a mess there, they had us locked up in that place. They blocked it off, and we were in the middle of that," says Ford. "That was one of the marches where my Daddy got beaten. His whole head was swollen up, and he didn't know what they'd hit him with. When I got to the house, he was already home, and my mama was worried about me because I was still out there. She said 'Well I'm glad you made it home because they almost tried to kill your daddy last night.'"

When asked how it felt that he had to remain non-violent, when he was attacked, Ford says: "I wanted to fight back, but it was a non-violent march, and we took a lot of whipping and abuse, just to uphold that. It was all about Martin Luther King and non-violence, and that's the way we went. What happened when you were marching, you're putting your hands up to try to block stuff, but you're not throwing punches. They're taking advantage of you. They just push through the crowds. The police they're holding their hands up, but they ain't giving protection. There were a lot of blacks down there, and there were a lot of whites down there. We had a lot of whites marching with us too, but they didn't care enough about that. They would come down to hurt somebody, and that was their intention and that's what they did."

Matanzas Theatre St. Augustine Florida Segregated
The segregated Matanzas Theatre on Cathedral Street in St. Augustine, Florida.
(State Archives of Florida)

"The last time I went to jail  my third time," says Ford. "It was when we went to the movies. It was during the summer of '65. We took a group of people, maybe 30 of us  kids going down there to do this. Some older kids, older than me, but no one to supervise, no adults with us, no parents. We wanted to go to the movies. That's why we left the Elk's, marched down there, and we were going to go to the movies. There was a back door there that you had to go down through and go up these long stairs, and up top, they had a balcony for the blacks. And if you came off Cathedral, you could go through the front of the downstairs, which was for the whites. I went to jail because we were going to try to go through the white part of the theater."

The long hot summer of 1964 and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not the end of segregation in St. Augustine, and they did not end the race tensions in the oldest city in the nation. 

When asked, when it began to feel as if it had been worth it, Ford says: "Not '64, not '65, not '66. In '67 they were trying to get a little better, but it was still crazy." 

He explains that all the kids over town (Lincolnville) had to walk to school at Richard J. Murray High School all the way out in West Augustine, and when they were walking home from games, if they were not able to get rides, they had to be careful once they crossed US1. "If you got to the San Sebastian Bridge at night, you were in for a heap of trouble. There was a bar right as you get into the Lincolnville area, and you had to pass that bar to get to the San Sebastian Bridge. Once you got on the other side, everybody knew  you had to run. And we had ladies with us, and they could really run. Once we got to the bridge, coming down King Street, crossing US1  you just had to run."

Thomas Ford graduated from Richard J. Murray High School in 1969, and this was the first year when they officially started integrating the schools in St. Johns County. "It was better then," says Ford. "I mean there was still some out there, but by '70 it was much better. It is not over yet. Things have just changed, and I know it has gotten better."

Kenny More, Thomas Ford and Thomas Garden at the 2021 Richard J. Murray Reunion in St. Augustine, Florida
Kenny More, Thomas Ford, and Thomas Garden at the 2021 Richard J. Murray High School Reunion in St. Augustine, Florida

If it were not for the young people such as Thomas Ford and James Jackson and the people in St. Augustine standing up for their rights in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might not have passed.

"Well, we've been on the beach, we've been hit, we've been abused, we've been kicked, we've been spit on," says Ford. "We went through a whole lot of things, but we held our ground  and it was a non-violent march at the time, but sometimes things got out of hand."

When asked why he thinks it is important that we remember what it was like for his generation, Ford says. "A lot of people don't realize what we went through to get where they are today. People don't know the struggle that the people went through before them and endured to get them in the situation where they are at, and positions and education and the whole lot in this town," says Ford. "A lot of them have gone on and can't tell the story, but a lot of us are here and will tell the story."

Video footage of civil rights marches and wade-ins in St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach, and Butler Beach in Florida.

You can learn more about the civil rights movement in St. Augustine here at the West Augustine News Connection, at the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum at 79 Bridge Street in St. Augustine, Florida, and at the Lincolnville Museum at 102 MLK Avenue in St. Augustine,  FL. 

*This piece was originally posted on the West Augustine News Connection on February 4, 2022.

Find more Real Florida Stories here.

Follow the Florida Coastal Connection on FacebookInstagram, TikTok, and YouTube to help us spread the word about the work we do so that we can help serve you better.