Mimi Jones was just 17 years old when she joined other activists in a “swim-in” at a whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida on June 18, 1964, to protest segregation. That day would become a powerful moment in the history of the United States, and an especially important one in the civil rights movement.
On that day, the hotel manager, a White man, was photographed as he poured acid into the pool where Jones and other activists had integrated to protest segregation. Together with the other protests and demonstrations in the summer of 1964 known as the St. Augustine Movement, this event at the pool in St. Augustine, Florida was so powerful that it changed the course of history, bringing more resolute action towards the plight of Black people.
On June 11, 1964, a week before the event, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for trespassing at the Monson Motor Lodge after being asked to leave its segregated restaurant. According to historians, King used the confrontation “as an opportunity to publicize both the non-violent approach used by civil rights activists and the desperate discrimination against Black people that persisted across the city.”
King’s arrest spurred a series of protests and confrontations between activists and the police, one of which was the “swim-in” demonstration. King and his team planned the “swim-in” at the same lodge that refused to accept him at its restaurant. White activists paid for motel rooms and invited Black people to join them as their guests in the “whites only” pool.
The hotel manager, Jimmy Brock, allegedly furious with King’s earlier protest and now the “swim-in”, poured a bottle of muriatic acid, an undiluted hydrochloric acid used to clean pools, into the pool, hoping the swimmers would become scared and leave. Brock apparently exclaimed, “I’m cleaning [the] pool!” as he poured the acid, a move captured by journalists and photographers who had gotten word of the demonstration and were onsite.
In the forefront of one of the images captured is 17-year-old Jones, who can be seen screaming in the pool as the owner of the hotel poured acid into the water behind her.
“It is as fresh in my mind as the morning dew, because when the acid was poured in the pool, the water began to bubble up,” Jones told WBUR in 2017. “It all happened so quickly. So after I started to scream, then I see this fully-clothed policeman jumping into the pool, over our heads.”
The policeman who entered the pool did not do so to help the protesters but to arrest them. Jones and her fellow activists would spend about a week in jail.
But once lawmakers and public officials saw images from the “swim-in”, including that of Jones screaming while the hotel manager poured acid into the pool, public outcry for action intensified and officials could no longer feign ignorance. In fact, the following day after the “swim-in”, the Civil Rights Act was approved.
On July 1, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, effectively making “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” unlawful.
“My commitment to social justice and being an activist before I went to St. Augustine had already been molded and crafted and shaped,” Jones told WBUR in 2017. “St. Augustine was just another one of the stations on the journey.”
Indeed, Jones, a Georgia native, was already an advocate for racial equality before the pool incident. She was a member of the Albany Movement that was protesting segregation and was arrested several times as an activist.
Jones was one of 14 children born Mamie Nell Ford on May 4, 1947, in Oakfield, Ga., near Albany. She helped her parents on their farm, picking cotton and selling eggs. She later moved to Albany when her mother started working there as a maid. There, Jones joined the Albany civil rights movement learning nonviolent resistance. She also risked her life to work on voter registration in Georgia before traveling the country as a spokeswoman for the civil rights movement.
A year after helping to raise money for the 1963 March on Washington, she agreed to join the “swim-in” at the whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge Hotel. Jones continued her civic activism in the years after the swim-in. She later moved to Boston. Before her death at the age of 73 in July 2020 at her home in the Roxbury section of Boston, she studied political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Jones received a bachelor’s degree and worked for the state education department before becoming a grant writer for organizations, according to The Washington Post.
“Mimi was my friend, co-collaborator and a key warrior in the fight for the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of ’64, desegregating the U.S. from coast to coast,” filmmaker Clennon King, who made a documentary in 2017 about the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, said after the passing of Jones.
The civil rights activist left behind a son, husband and three sisters.