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Obituary

Overlooked for her role in a galvanizing civil rights protest, Mimi Jones dies at 73

After Black protesters integrated a whites-only pool, the motel owner poured acid near Mrs. Jones.
After Black protesters integrated a whites-only pool, the motel owner poured acid near Mrs. Jones.Courtesy of Clennon L. King.

A news photo of the 1964 racial attack spread around the world: 17-year-old Mimi Jones opens her mouth as if to scream as the white motel owner behind her dumps acid into the water of the Florida pool she was trying to integrate.

“The water bubbled up like a volcano right in front of my face,” she told the Globe in 2017, describing the “swim-in” at the motel in St. Augustine, a community that was then a focal point of civil rights demonstrations.

Drawing international coverage, the vicious incident appeared to have had a catalyzing effect. President Lyndon B. Johnson discussed the attack in an Oval Office phone call with an adviser, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been stalled, was overwhelmingly approved by the US Senate the following day.

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Mrs. Jones, an overlooked civil rights foot soldier who put her life on the line as a teenager, later moved to New England as a college scholarship student. She settled in Boston, continued her activism, and was 73 when she died Sunday in her Roxbury home.

“She and I were talking about it a couple of weeks ago,” Sarah-Ann Shaw, a pioneering Black female reporter who had worked for WBZ-TV, said of Mrs. Jones’s role in the June 18, 1964, protest.

“Mimi did it because she thought it was something that needed to be done,” Shaw added. “She was not frightened. And she was a kid, too.”

A teenager, perhaps, but by the time Mrs. Jones traveled from her home near Albany, Ga., to St. Augustine for the pool protest, she was a civil rights veteran. She had taught poor rural Black residents to read so they could register to vote, joined the March on Washington in 1963 as a 16-year-old, and repeatedly was arrested at nonviolent demonstrations as a high school student.

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“I cannot tell you how many times Mimi got arrested,” said her younger sister, Altomease Ford Latting of Birmingham, Ala.

After making Boston her home, Mrs. Jones wrote grants for nonprofits, worked for the state Education Department, and was active with numerous organizations and neighborhood committees.

“She wanted social justice,” said her son, Gervase of Roxbury. “She was a fighter for equal justice, for civil rights. She was a student of human nature.”

Developing a keen understanding of those around her was helpful when a teenage Mrs. Jones immersed herself in the civil rights movement.

“Failure was not an option,” her sister recalled. “We worked in voter registration, we taught people how to read, we taught people how to write, we marched.”

And then they boarded a bus to participate in the 1964 protests to integrate businesses and public places in St. Augustine, where demonstrators were being beaten daily as they stepped onto the beach or marched in the streets. Despite the danger, Mrs. Jones didn’t hesitate.

“Mimi understood the necessity of standing up and being counted,” Shaw said.

Mrs. Jones “was very committed to direct action. It was no game for her,” said documentary filmmaker Clennon L. King, who interviewed her for “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement That Transformed America.” His film won the Hampton Award of Excellence at the 2015 Roxbury International Film Festival.

After traveling from Albany to St. Augustine, about 240 miles away, Mrs. Jones and other Black protesters were invited to use the Monson Motor Lodge pool as “guests” of white civil rights activists who were staying at the segregated motel.

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They planned to integrate the pool with a “swim-in” — much like other protesters were integrating the nearby beach with a “wade-in.”

“We put on our bathing suits, and we went to the pool, and we jump into the pool,” Mrs. Jones told WGBH-TV in 2017.

As police prepared to arrest the protesters, the motel owner walked to the pool’s edge, reached out holding a jug, and poured acid into the water.

“I could barely breathe,” Mrs. Jones told WGBH. “It was entering my nose and my eyes.”

Another protester pulled her to the side of the pool and she later thought the water helped prevent serious injury by diluting the acid – not that medical care was an option.

“She was not taken to the hospital. She was taken to jail,” said her sister, who also participated in the protest. “I was in the second wave to go into the pool, and we were taken to jail.”

Mamie Nell Ford, who was always known as Mimi, was born just outside Albany, Ga., on May 4, 1947. She was the 13th of 14 children born to Terrell Ford Jr. and Lettie May Young, who ran a family farm.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Jones “loved learning,” her sister said, and she encouraged siblings and friends to study, too.

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“She made us feel that not only do we have to strive to do better, to do something, but we needed to use our talents and our gifts and our abilities to help other people,” Altomease said.

She added that her sister might have been valedictorian of her class at a high school only attended by Black students, but chose instead to join a few other students who integrated a white high school.

Once there, Mrs. Jones finished fifth in her class, Altomease recalled, adding that while the school traditionally had top students lead the procession at graduation in the order they finished academically, the practice was suspended because officials didn’t want a Black girl walking in front of so many white students.

A college scholarship brought Mrs. Jones to New England, where she then transferred to what is now the University of Massachusetts Boston and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

She married John Jones, a tax auditor, whom she met when they were volunteering together, helping the poor and immigrants.

While devoting time to various organizations, “she tried to tailor her passions and work around social justice for marginalized people,” her son said. “She always wanted to focus on the future and how things could be.”

Mrs. Jones, holding a news photo of her being attacked on June 18, 1964, during a "swim-in" to desegregate a St. Augustine, Fla., pool.
Mrs. Jones, holding a news photo of her being attacked on June 18, 1964, during a "swim-in" to desegregate a St. Augustine, Fla., pool. Clennon L. King/AugustineMonica Films

A service will be announced for Mrs. Jones, who in addition to her husband, son, and sister leaves two other sisters, Willa Woodson of Detroit and Geneva Jones of Birmingham, Ala.

Only long-ago politicians knew how much the St. Augustine protests affected the Civil Rights Act of 1964′s prospects, but the timing of the US Senate vote and the president’s own words offer hints. “They started pouring acid in the pool,” Johnson, sounding distressed, said of the protests in an Oval Office phone conversation with George Taylor, a professor.

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In the documentary, the Rev. Andrew Young, a prominent civil rights activist who went on to become mayor of Atlanta and UN ambassador, says simply: “We would not have had the decisive victory that we had in the ’64 Civil Rights Act if we had not been in St. Augustine.”

And that success was due in part to protesters such as Mrs. Jones, who showed King photos and documents when she first met him for his documentary.

“She said, ‘I just want you to know who I am,’ " he recalled.

“She shared her story,” he added. “I could see from the outset that she did not want to be buried with her song still inside. And in many respects, what happened in that pool was her song.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.