Walking in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Footsteps: Road Trip to St. Augustine, FL

In St. Augustine, FL Civil Rights history, and icon Martin Luther King, Jr., are the focus of a step by step tour that lets you walk in the footsteps of these leaders. Also where to stay and what else to do on your road trip.

Hilton St. Augustine Bayfront
Hilton St. Augustine Bayfront
Hilton St. Augustine Bayfront In St. Augustine, Fl

Hilton St. Augustine Bayfront in St. Augustine, FL.

When learning is fun, your road trip is a win.

It’s pretty cool when, on vacation, you get the chance to sleep at the foot of history. But it’s even cooler when you get to stand where some of the most important battles in the Civil Rights Movement were fought. This is what we found ourselves drawn back to again and again on a trip to St. Augustine, Florida.

St. Augustine has been the staging ground for so much of our country’s history, from the earliest founding of a city by Ponce de Leon in the 1500’s, to the rule of the Spanish in the 1600’s, the British in the 1700’s, its role in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and its place as a stomping ground for the rich and famous during Henry Flagler’s march to Miami.

The Civil Rights March, Step by Step

But St. Augustine’s pivotal role in the the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964–a reluctant, embattled and somewhat shameful role–has recently been embraced and commemorated by the Accord Freedom Trail, a series of plaques, markers and statues that give people the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr.Andrew Young and other civil rights trailblazers.

The Accord Freedom Trail is anchored in the town’s Plaza de la Constitucion, the town square that had been the town’s original market space and is also home to some original cannons, a gazebo where weekly concerts are held and the Public Market, where food and goods were sold and which over the centuries was used for slave trade. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Public Market became a visible and symbolic destination for marches and protests. Across the plaza at the opposite end, the city has laid commemorative plaques into the sidewalk that crosses the park. These plaques follow the path the marchers took as they protested in the 1960’s and are feature quotes from Andrew Young and his footsteps leading the march into the square. The plaques lead viewers toward the Public Market and the Foot Soldiers Monument, which was unveiled in 2011 and commemorates the efforts of so many residents in the 1960’s to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Less visible but certainly a profound stop on the Freedom Trail is the Hilton Bayfront, which overlooks the Matanzas Bay. To look at it is to think it’s been there almost as long as the Castillo de San Marcos across the street, which was built in 1672 to secure the Spanish stronghold. A quaint collection of colonial Spanish buildings with red tiled rooftops and balconies, flying multi-national flags and accented by palm trees, behind the hotel’s facade are comfortable, luxurious hotel rooms with comfortable beds, plush towels and room service. The lobby, which features oversized Spanish style furnishings, Spanish tiled floors and an elegant fountain, resembles the interior of other Spanish-influenced buildings in town.

Sit-In At Monson Restaurant In St. Augustine, Fl

A Civil Rights sit-in at Monson Restaurant in St. Augustine, FL

When the hotel was built a few years ago, Hilton embraced not just the history of the town, but also the particular parcel of land: it was to be built on the grounds of the former Monson Motor Lodge, a central and harrowing locale in the Civil Rights Movement.

In his quest to help pass the Civil Rights Act, and with a goal of desegregating the beaches of Anastasia Island (which was home to Butler Beach, one of the few beaches for blacks in the country) Martin Luther King Jr. organized marches in St. Augustine to assist the efforts by a local dentist, Dr. Robert Hayling. Dr. King’s involvement brought supporters from around the country who joined the nightly marches down King Street through the center of town, ending at the Public Market, where demonstrations ensued and arrests were made.

But on June 11, 1964 the demonstration moved to the front steps of the restaurant at the Monson Motor Lodge which was designated “whites only.” As Dr. King attempted to enter the restaurant, he was arrested, his only arrest in Florida. In protest, a group of black and white students jumped into the Monson Motor Lodge’s pool, which was, of course, designated “whites only.” The motel manager poured acid into the pool to get the protesters out of the water, and eventually everyone was arrested.

A Plaque Commonages The Steps Where Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Arrested In St. Augustine, Fl

A plaque commonages the steps where Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in St. Augustine, FL

The scene played out on national television and radio and on the front pages of newspapers around the world; the Civil Rights Act was being filibustered in the US Senate and supporters feared it wouldn’t pass. But Dr. King’s efforts proved successful, and the landmark legislation was passed.

Eventually, the mid century motel was sold and in in 2003 it was torn down. But with an eye toward embracing all the history of the city, Hilton preserved the steps where Dr. King was arrested and the pool where the students protested. The steps occupy a shady spot in the  Hilton’s front courtyard and is denoted with a plaque. As we did, you can stand in Dr. King’s footsteps. Across the courtyard is a gate that leads to the pool where two plaques commemorate the events in the Monson Motor Lodge pool: one on the wall that separates the hotel grounds from the sidewalk, and one on the wall of the pool for swimmers to see.

Closeup Of The Plaque At The Monson Motel, Now The Hilton St. Augustine Bayfront

Closeup of the plaque at the Monson Motel, now the Hilton St. Augustine Bayfront

When a day of following history is done and your feet hurt from marching in the footsteps of revolutionaries, the Hilton is also a wonderful retreat; the pool is the perfect afternoon refresher (and one of only a few at in town hotels or lodges); the charming Spanish colonial design lends to lots of balconies for relaxing and gazing at the Matanzas Bay and the Bridge of Lions; the lobby bar is a perfect place to begin the evening with a sangria or a martini; and if you don’t feel like venturing out to one of the many, many great restaurants that are just a short walk, the Hilton’s restaurant, Aviles, serves inspired dishes that are both local and familiar.

Hilton Bayfront St. Augustine rates are seasonal
Casa Monica, full service hotel in grand Spanish style
St. George Inn, B&B on Historic St. George St.
Bayfront Wescott House, charming old Florida with water views

Dining in St. Augustine might be worth the trip on its own; what used to be a collection of pubs and fried shrimp tourist spots has morphed into a foodie heaven with world class cooking, great wine bars, inventive cocktails and live music. Our favorites include:
Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grille (46 Avenida Menendez) New Orleans Style food and drink, inside or in the beautiful garden;
The Columbia Restaurant (98 St. George St.) for old-school upscale Cuban; always busy but worth the wait;
The Tasting Room (25 Cuna St.) creative tapas and wine;
O.C. Whites (118 Avenida Menendez) great American/pub fare in one of the oldest buildings in town, inside upstairs has water views and the vine covered garden is relaxing;
The Gourmet Hut and Crucial Coffee, (17 Cuna St.) casual, unique, local handcrafted dishes in a tropical garden–most seating is outside;
Rhett’s (66 Hypolita St.) a piano bar serving dinner and small bites and the best music and cocktails in town; a grownup adjunct to Scarlett’s, the legendary nightspot next door;
Scarlett O’Hara’s (70 Hypolita St.) pub fare, cold beer and camaraderie in this always busy, always fun bar and restaurant
Collage (60 Hypolita St.) a gourmet ‘scratch kitchen’ known for great food and an extensive wine list
Cellar 6 (6 Aviles St.) wine bar and restaurant with live music, sophisticated feel and good food and drink;
The Hyppo (48 Charlotte St.) Gourmet popsicle shop featuring hand made unique pops with flavors like mango chipotle and lemon lavender.

Outside of the Oldest City:
Caps on the Water (4325 Myrtle Street  St. Augustine) probably the most beautiful restaurant setting on the East Coast, and food to match: sit among live oaks and Spanish moss (on the Intracoastal just north of the city) and enjoy local flavors and seafood;
Gypsy Cab Co. (828 Anastasia Blvd.), modern, urban cuisine with bright flavors and a vibrant atmosphere–a long time local and tourist favorite
Saltwater Cowboys (299 Dondaville Rd., St Augustine Beach) decades famous seafood spot on the Intracoastal south of the city
Blackfly (108 Anastasia Blvd), just across the Bridge of Lions and worth the trip for modern seafood from a fishing-inspired menu, a favorite among both locals and visitors; its owners also own Collage in town.

Disclosure: Our stay at the Hilton Bayfront was provided by the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau; however, we have also stayed at the Casa Monica and have eaten at all the restaurants mentioned.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss