Rabbi part of pivotal pool protest in Florida in 1964

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Rabbi Allen Secher of Whitefish.

Rabbi Allen Secher of Whitefish was at the very front of the line on June 17, 1964, as a group of demonstrators marched to end segregation in St. Augustine, Fla.

As the young rabbi walked alongside a young black woman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s earlier words of caution weighed heavily on Secher as they walked from a black neighborhood into an area where only white people lived.

The civil rights leader had carefully instructed the group about steeling themselves against the jeers they most certainly would encounter. And he reminded them that three months earlier a demonstrator had been shot by a sniper hiding in a tree.

“It was the scariest two hours of my life, especially in the white neighborhood and we were marching under trees,” Secher recalled.

The following day, Secher and 15 other rabbis were arrested and jailed while participating in a nonviolent demonstration at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine.

It was the height of the civil rights movement and the tension was thick as the motel owner began pouring acid into the motel swimming pool to force several young black demonstrators out of the whites-only pool.

Secher, 79, is one of six rabbis who are returning to St. Augustine for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of their arrest. Many of the other rabbis arrested along with Secher have died over the years or can’t make the trip. One of the child demonstrators from the pool incident also will attend the ceremony.

There is a series of events planned by the city of St. Augustine and the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, including a special gathering at the site of the Monson Motor Lodge where a Hilton hotel now stands.

Two weeks following the volatile clash in St. Augustine, President Lyndon Johnson sighed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

“If we had any role in that, boy, am I proud,” Secher said.

Secher was one of 500 Jewish rabbis attending a convention in Atlantic City, N.J., on June 16, 1964, when King sent a telegram recruiting rabbis to come to St. Augustine to participate in the civil rights demonstrations.

King had been arrested a week earlier during a demonstration at the Monson Motor Lodge.

King’s telegram told how St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States that at the time was celebrating its 400th anniversary, had “become the battleground between the forces of good and ill will in our nation ... We cannot allow them to celebrate 400 years of bigotry and hate.”

“When the telegram was read, my hand went up instantly,” Secher said.

He was among 16 rabbis willing to make the trip and take a stand for civil rights. Secher was no stranger to demonstrating for what he believed in. Two years earlier he was among the Freedom Riders civil rights activists jailed in Albany, Ga.

The rabbis were met by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as they arrived in St. Augustine and were driven to a neighborhood where they stayed overnight with black families. As they gathered at the local church that first night, King issued instructions about how to offer passive resistance if they were approached — how to fall, how to cover their heads, how to show no response.

“The National Guard had been called, but three-quarters of them were segregationists,” Secher said. In other words, the demonstrators were more or less on their own.

The march went off without incident, so demonstrators split into three groups the following morning. Some headed to Woolworth’s for a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter; others went to the Monson Motor Lodge restaurant and a third group, including Secher, went to the motel parking lot.

King had vowed to challenge segregation in St. Augustine “even if it takes all summer.”

A peaceful prayer service was underway in the parking lot when a number of children, “both black and white,” Secher recalled, “tore through the lot, peeled off clothing down to their bathing suits and leaped into the pool that was filled with white tourists.”

Minutes later the motel owner began pouring a gallon of acid into the pool to forcibly evict the swimmers, and an off-duty police officer jumped in “clothes and all” to retrieve the kids, who were unharmed by the diluted acid.

“He got them out and the kids were arrested. We were arrested,” Secher said. “I’m not sure what the charge was, maybe unlawful assembly.”

On his way to jail, Secher saw a young white girl who had been arrested during the demonstrations being abused by a police officer with a cattle prod.

“It was the most horrendous scene I have ever witnessed,” he said. “I still see that scene again and again.”

The 16 rabbis were crammed into a small cell and spent the night writing a joint letter about their experience, titled “Why We Went.”

“We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us,” their letter stated. “We could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means — a rare modern privilege — which has been the glory of the nonviolent struggles for civil rights ... We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hilter’s crematoria ... We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”

As Secher recalls, “the Holocaust is, in essence, why we went.”

Secher had been on the receiving end of racial hatred during his childhood.

“I grew up in a very anti-Semitic town, a steel town in Pennsylvania the size of Kalispell,” he said. “As a kid of 7 or 8 I often had my head busted open” as his classmates hurled rocks and insults.

“Jew bastard” was the recurring slur.

When Secher had an appendicitis attack at 13, the local Catholic hospital refused to admit him, saying there were no doctors available.

Though he was a skilled golfer, Secher couldn’t play on the high school golf team because the country club restricted Jews.

“Almost all the girls were not permitted to date me,” he recalled.

It was a given that if he had a chance to march for civil rights in St. Augustine that fateful summer, he would.

“I knew what it was like” to be the victim of discrimination, Secher said. “Therefore I can’t let it happen to others.”

He has spent his life working on human rights issues in one way or another.

“A real P.S. to this story is that only one time in my 15 years here [in the Flathead Valley] have I faced anything resembling anti-Semitism,” he said. “It was a car salesman the second year I was here.”

For many years Secher was known as the “Lone Rabbi of Montana.” He was the first rabbi installed in Flathead County to serve Bet Harim Jewish Community.

He and his wife, Ina, helped found the Multi-Faith Coalition of the Flathead Valley, a group of 14 faith denominations. They also have been active with Love Lives Here, an independent affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network.

One of the great highlights of his life, he said, was when a local women’s magazine recently named him Man of the Year.

“That was such an honor for a Jewish boy in Christian Montana,” he said.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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