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How the Photo of a 17-Year-Old Civil Rights Activist at a "Swim-In" Against Segregation Changed History

Mamie Nell Ford's picture made headlines around the world and helped spur the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When she joined a "swim-in" in St. Augustine, Florida on June 18, 1964, 17-year-old Mamie Nell Ford had little idea that her picture would soon be seen around the world — and help spur the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. On that day, seven civil rights activists, including Ford, jumped into the segregated pool at the Monson Motor Lodge to protest its 'whites-only' policy. As journalists looked on, the motel owner's James Brock responded by dumping acid into the pool in an effort to drive them out. Ford recalls that her immediate reaction was "I couldn't breathe," and a photo of her with an alarmed expression as Brock pours acid nearby appeared in newspapers around the world. When people learn about the incident today, Ford says, "I'm often asked, ‘How could you have so much courage?’ Courage for me is not ‘the absence of fear,’ but what you do in the face of fear.”

The campaign to challenge segregation in St. Augustine in 1963 and 1964, known as the St. Augustine Movement, is considered one of the bloodiest of the Civil Rights Movement. Students staging "wade-ins" to challenge segregation on the beaches were violently beaten. When several black children were admitted into white schools after the Supreme Court's decision outlawing school segregation, several of the children's homes were burnt to the ground by local segregationists. Martin Luther King, Jr. was even arrested on the steps of this same motel only a week prior to the pool "swim-in," after being charged with trespassing when he attempted to dine at the "whites-only" Monson Restaurant.

Prior to the pool "swim-in", Ford was already an experienced civil rights activist in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Albany to recruit activists to support the movement in St. Augustine, she immediately signed up. “When they asked for volunteers to participate in the swim-in demonstration, I said, yes, because, despite segregation, I knew how to swim,” she says. While they knew it was likely they would be arrested, no one expected the owner to pour acid into the pool. "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," Ford recalls.

Although the group of black and white activists —  including the teenaged Ford — was arrested shortly thereafter, their protest had the intended effect: as it made headlines worldwide, President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a recorded phone conservation: "Our whole foreign policy will go to hell over this!" Within 24 hours, the civil rights bill that had been introduced a year before, and had been stalled in the Senate, won approval, leading directly to the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After being released from jail for the swim-in, Ford made a powerful statement urging the people of St. Augustine to keep fighting: “Don't lose heart now because you're the ones on whom this movement rests. People will come and go because they live somewhere else, but you live here and you make this thing happen.” She returned home and went on to join five other black girls to lead the desegregation of the formerly all-white Albany High School, where she graduated with honors in 1965. Ford, who later changed her name to Mimi Jones, then went to college in Boston where she spent her career working in the Department of Education. Her story and that of the St. Augustine civil rights fight has been recently told in director Clennon L. King's documentary, Passage at St. Augustine.

Although less well known than school segregation, the long legacy of segregation in swimming pools still lives on today. After legal challenges and actions like this one in St. Augustine forced the end of segregated pools, many towns, especially in the South, experienced "white flight": white patrons stopped attending public pools and joined private clubs instead, often leading to the closure of public facilities. The resulting lack of access to pools over generations, which is discussed in the book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, has led to a major gap between white and black Americans in swimming ability, with whites being twice as likely to know how to swim as blacks. This difference is also reflected in the CDC finding that black children are three times more likely die from drowning than white children.

For these reasons and the long legacy of racism at swimming pools, Simone Manuel's victories at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games took on special meaning for many African Americans — a significance the young swimmer alluded to after she became the first African-American woman to ever win an individual Olympic gold in swimming: “The gold medal wasn't just for me," she said. "It's for a lot of people who came before me.”

Books About Mighty Girls of the Civil Rights Movement

Ruby Bridges Goes To School

Ruby Bridges Goes To School

Written by: Ruby Bridges
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Ruby Bridges was just six years old when she walked through an angry crowd, escorted by federal marshals, to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans — by starting kindergarten. In this early reader, Bridges aptly tells her story to her young audience and accents it with historical photographs, allowing emerging readers to develop an understanding of segregation and to explore an iconic moment in the struggle for civil rights. It's an inspiring story about a courageous girl, told in her own voice! For a picture book telling of Bridges' story, check out The Story of Ruby Bridges for ages 4 to 8.

The Other Side

The Other Side

Written by: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by: E. B. Lewis
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

In Clover’s 1950s town, a fence runs down the middle: one side is for young Clover's African American community, while the other side is where the white people live. But one day, Clover meets a little girl named Annie who lives on the other side of the fence. Cautiously, the two girls approach each other, wondering how they can play together without breaking the rules. Finally, the solution occurs to them — and they spend the day sitting on the fence together. Elegant watercolor illustrations by E.B. Lewis pair perfectly with Woodson’s thoughtful text to effectively communicate the deep truth behind Annie’s comment: “Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down.”

Let the Children March

Let the Children March

Written by: Monica Clark-Robinson
Illustrated by: Frank Morrison
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, thousands of children joined the ranks of civil rights protestors in the Children's Crusade. One fictional girl reveals how many restrictions were placed on African Americans: everything from water fountains to playgrounds were off limits. She remembers the furious white onlookers and police officers who met their protest with violence and hate. Despite it all, though, the children stood together: "Our march made the difference," she proclaims proudly. This vivid telling of an important moment in Civil Rights history reminds kids that they, too, can make a difference.

Ruth and the Green Book

Ruth and the Green Book

Illustrated by: Floyd Cooper
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

It's the 1950s, and Ruth's family is excited: they've just bought a new car and are ready to set off to visit Ruth's grandmother in Alabama! But they soon discover that Jim Crow laws make traveling difficult, since many hotels and gas stations won't serve African Americans. Then, a friendly gas station attendant introduces them to The Green Book, a guide specifically for African-American travelers that tells them where they will be welcomed. Filled with gorgeous oil wash paintings, this thoughtful story is a loving tribute to The Green Book through the eyes of a curious young girl.

Glory Be

Glory Be

Written by: Augusta Scattergood
Recommended Age: 8 and up

Glory has always looked forward to celebrating her July 4th birthday at the community pool. But in 1964, the summer she turns 12, that proves to be complicated. The town is in an uproar: Yankee "freedom people" are insisting that the pool be desegregated, and in response, the town has closed the pool "for repairs" indefinitely. As the conflict continues, and Glory comes of age, she begins to look beyond her own situation and see the closure of the pool in the context of the broader world. This memorable story captures the thoughts and feelings of a girl caught on the cusp of adulthood and facing true injustice she had never noticed before.

She Stood For Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (Middle Grade)

She Stood For Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (Middle Grade)

Written by: Loki Mulholland
Illustrated by: Charlotta Janssen
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

By the time she was 19, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland had been arrested more than once for her work to support the Civil Rights Movement. As one of the Freedom Riders, she was jailed in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. During the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins in Jackson, Mississippi, Mulholland was the first white person to join the protest. And when Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington and Selma voting rights marches, Mulholland was there too. This middle grade biography introduces readers to a little-known figure whose determination to be an ally could not be swayed. This story is also available in a picture book edition for ages 6 to 9.

Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges

Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges

Written by: Ruby Bridges
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

It's one thing to hear the story of Ruby Bridges in the third person, but in this remarkable book, you get to imagine it through her own eyes. In simple language, Bridges recounts the experience of simultaneously knowing that she was part of a bigger era in history, yet still being a child who didn't fully understand why people were so angry at her. With additional material including photographs, sidebars about Bridges' influence in popular culture, and an update on her later life and civil rights work, this volume creates a newly complex portrait of this iconic figure and her incredible courage.

Revolution

Revolution

Written by: Deborah Wiles
Recommended Age: 9 and up

All the adults say that Greenwood, Mississippi, is being "invaded" in the summer of 1964: invaded by people coming from the North to help African Americans register to vote. Sunny's biggest worry at the start of the Freedom Summer is her own little invasion: the new stepmother and siblings crowding her home and her life. But through a series of unexpected events, Sunny discovers she needs — and wants — to figure out how can she stand up for herself and fight or what is right. This is the second book by author Deborah Wiles set in the turbulent 1960s; kids can also check out the groundbreaking documentary novel Countdown about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories

Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories

Written by: Ellen S. Levine
Recommended Age: 10 and up

In every civil rights battle, children and teens took their parts too. This book collects the stories of thirty African Americans who were children or teens during the 1950s and 1960s. Each of them describes what it was like to grow up in a segregated America, how it felt to participate in protests, sit-ins, and school integrations, and the realities of the hatred, violence, and legal threats they faced as they did so. These powerful stories serve as a reminder that it took everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to fight for the rights African-American people deserved.

Warriors Don't Cry

A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High

Warriors Don't Cry

A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High

Written by: Melba Pattillo Beals
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Melba Patillo turned sixteen in 1957, the same year that she became an unwitting warrior for desegregation. As one of the Little Rock Nine, she faced a firestorm of opposition as she entered the previously all-white Central High. In a harrowing ordeal, Melba faced everything from taunts to threats to an attack with acid that injured her eyes, but she never gave up her courage or her dignity. "Searing" is exactly the right description for this affecting story of friendship, faith, and personal commitment, and young adult readers will be shocked to learn just how hard African American teens had to fight for their right to receive an equal education. Patillo has also written another biography for ages 12 and up, March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine, which explores how her childhood experiences led her to become part of the civil rights battle at Little Rock.

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