Marshall Bloom’s southern exposure: Schooled in prejudice

Call to aid rights struggle ignites Bloom’s activism

  • A story Marshall Bloom wrote for the Amherst Student newspaper.  AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

  • A page from a letter that Marshall Bloom sent to friends about his civil rights work in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964. He wrote it from the St. John’s County Jail after his arrest for ordering food with a black friend. He spent five days in jail, then returned to Amherst College, only to leave again to return south in the middle of final exams. AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

  • Marshall Bloom shared his experiences doing civil rights work with fellow students at Amherst through stories in the student newspaper.  AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS


For the Gazette 
Published: 5/26/2016 4:42:30 PM

Third of four parts


In early 1964, the spring of Marshall Bloom’s sophomore year at Amherst College, a new battleground for civil rights was taking shape in the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine, Florida.

A quaint community with plenty of Florida schlock, St. Augustine was settled by the Spanish in 1565, decades before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Beyond the tourist-friendly European history, St. Augustine also featured a troubled history with race relations. Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Taylor Branch has suggested that St. Augustine might have been the site of the first slave sales in the land now known as the United States. To this day, the city’s central square — La Plaza de la Constitucion — features an open-air pavilion known as the Slave Market.

Against a cultural backdrop of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, the nation’s original city was grappling with the nation’s original sin. Blacks comprised 25 percent of St. Augustine’s population of 15,000, but they wielded no power. Rigid segregation underlined all facets of city life. Blacks couldn’t eat at lunch counters. They had to step to the back of the line every time a white customer arrived at a drug store. The first token school integration in the fall of 1963 — nine years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision — had resulted in one black family’s car being firebombed, while the home of another was burned to the ground.

With debate pending in Congress about the Civil Rights Bill, St. Augustine became a segregationist line in the sand. The Ku Klux Klan descended. Local civil rights leader Robert Hayling, an African-American dentist, had 11 teeth bashed in and was almost burned alive when he tried to eavesdrop on a Klan rally. A few months later, Hayling’s home was shot into, killing his dog and narrowly missing his pregnant wife.

Hayling turned to Martin Luther King Jr. and his civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They reached out to campus chaplains in the north, hoping to entice college students to travel south in support of integration during what was then known as “Easter Break” in late March.

Amherst responds

At Amherst College, the chaplain was Lewis Seymour Mudge, a towering Presbyterian presence at 6-foot-4½, topped by a mane of hair that started graying in his 20s. He had been a Rhodes Scholar who went on to get his Ph.D. from Princeton. He was refined enough to live most of his 13 years at Amherst in the Emily Dickinson homestead with his wife, Jean (the curator), yet gritty enough to spend hours tinkering on airplanes he loved to fly out of LaFleur Airport in Northampton. Mudge believed passionately in the written word.

He had been editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian (and would ultimately write 12 books). He leaned toward pacifism, but believed that some fights were worth having — none more so than the showdown over civil rights. He presented the case about St. Augustine to Amherst students.

Marshall Bloom had met his moment.

Bloom drove down with four Amherst classmates in a brown 1962 Volvo owned by senior Brad Collins. They dipped into a little-known world in the south, past a North Carolina billboard announcing “Welcome to Klan Country” and past bathrooms and water fountains labeled “Colored.” In St. Augustine, they worked on voter registration and tried to talk with local politicians, business leaders, and clergy — getting a message from most whites that black folks were content and not in need of any help. Picketing at the airport in nearby Jacksonville, Bloom and his friends were showered with taunts.

Bloom met with Hayling at his dental office, center of local civil rights activity. He was struck by Hayling’s dignity, describing him in a letter to friends as “the leader, preacher, organizer, father & inspiration of civil rts. hope in S.A.” One night working in Hayling’s office at 11:15 he had to evacuate because of a bomb scare.

He stayed near Hayling’s office in the African-American section of St. Augustine known as Lincolnville with a 25-year-old black man named Willie Mitchell. According to Bloom, Mitchell had read only one book, the Bible, “but he’s a complex, amazing person,” with “a deep, moving faith.”

On Thursday, March 26, trying to order lunch downtown with Mitchell, in defiance of local laws, Bloom was arrested. He spent the next several days in the St. John’s County Jail, fasting and writing. It was a holy weekend, the rare convergence of Easter and Passover, and Bloom went deeply into himself on a spiritual quest.

“…First is the feeling, for one of the few times in my life, of being ‘committed’ to something…It’s a nice, good simple feeling…

“…Actually I think the most good we have done has been in just living in Negro homes, walking down Negro-area streets, halloing everyone I see. The Negroes here were pressed down by violence last summer (car burning, house shooting, elect. cattle prods, 4 under-17 year olds in jail 6 months for sit-ins) & they were afraid…. Moreover, this is the first time any whites have treated them as human beings, as equals. When I say ‘sir’ to an old Negro man used to being called ‘boy’ or ‘uncle,’ or give my seat to a Negro woman, then they feel, as small as these little examples are, a sense, for them (of) human dignity & I feel pleased that such a little effort can mean so much…

“But being in jail now is something else, too. It is a personal experience. There are spiritual questions, which strike me, a totally alone me, but no different than the others of us in here…. And the ‘inner strength’ questions: will I be able to take it, confined to this one room with no blankets, towels, air? Will I be able to fast? (I hope so, by god) But more than either of these, it is a time to come to terms with myself. ‘The nature of the material’ world has been a question I’ve considered ever since I got to S.A. but now I’m seeing what things are real necessities to my happiness & almost nothing is a necessity for my life…”

Bloom was allowed to make one phone call from jail, and it proved a doozy. He called home, collect, to Colorado as his family gathered around the Seder table with matzoh, the bitter herb, the 10 dips of red wine on the plates to represent the plagues. There was no caller ID back then, no answering machines. They answered. Marshall explained where he was and what he was doing. Just as they were celebrating the freedom of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, he said, he was trying to liberate others from a similar kind of bondage.

Barbara Bloom remembers the impact of the call on their parents. Their father, Sam, was “furious” and “embarrassed,” while their mother, Lillian was terrified of what might happen to Marshall in jail. After five days, Bloom was bonded out; he then drove back with the Amherst contingent, singing freedom songs for hours. It had been an energizing, unforgettable experience.

Back in Amherst, he wrote a vivid and haunting front-page column about his experience in St. Augustine, a cell intended for four women holding 50, Negroes and students being “dragged, carried and electrically-shocked into police cars.”

In April, he received a handwritten letter from Robert Hayling:

“Dear Mr. Bloom:

I wish I could adequately express our deep appreciation of the help you gave the S.C.L.C. We realize that it entailed sacrifice. The knowledge that others share in the struggle gives strength and courage to the Freedom Fighters. It also shows the world that there is an American conscience.”

As the civil rights clash in St. Augustine escalated in late May and early June — with Martin Luther King going down there, having his cottage shot into, then being arrested and spending time in jail — Bloom could not stay away.

He bolted from campus, missing final exams, and plunged back into the fray. On the night of June 4, he stood in a church in Lincolnville and absorbed the words of Dr. King, scrawling notes on the back of an envelope from the Northampton Travel Bureau, stamped with 5 cents of postage:

“Dr. King – Thurs nite

We have reached pt of no return in St. Aug…”

That same day, in a flurry of literary urgency, Bloom wrote lengthy pieces for hometown papers, The Denver Post and the Intermountain Jewish News, both of which were published.

Also that day, from the other direction, came a terse telegram with six words on it:


The truth was, though, at least metaphorically, Marshall Bloom was never going home. He had become his own man.

His final two years at Amherst were an inferno of activism. He became the chairman (editor in chief) of the student newspaper, and devoted major real estate to civil rights, and the emerging protest movement around the war in Vietnam. He traveled to Selma with Lew Mudge in 1965 in support of King’s work on voting rights, getting arrested again. He spent a summer in the South, working with students from Harvard on a newspaper called the Southern Courier, publishing stories about civil rights that seldom appeared in the conventional press.

Bloom’s impact on Amherst students was profound. Hal Wilde, who accompanied Bloom to St. Augustine, and later followed him as chairman of the student newspaper, said, “He had a way of pushing you and squeezing things out of you in the name of a kind of righteousness that was very powerful.”

Dan Keller, who came to Amherst as a freshman in 1965, says the first impression was indelible: “Marshall was an incredibly optimistic person, but he had a very dark side, obviously. When I first met him, which was on my first day at Amherst College…I knew that he was different. He had a very mischievous look in his eye, but he had incredibly intense manic energy.”

Bloom’s Amherst experience came to a crescendo on his graduation day, June 3, 1966. He worked with other students to plan a protest about the college’s decision to award an honorary degree to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Bloom’s freshman roommate, Elliott Isenberg, recalls that the morning of the graduation McNamara agreed to meet with the protesters, and that Bloom engaged him in a lengthy discussion.

At the graduation Bloom and 19 classmates in white armbands walked out on the ceremony — Isenberg actually refusing his diploma. The protest made the front page of the New York Times. Barbara Bloom attended the ceremony with her older brother, Alan, and their mother, Lillian. Their  father, Sam, was home recuperating from a recent heart attack. Barbara recalled her mother saying, “At least your father didn’t have to see this.”

Marshall Bloom had completed four remarkable, transformative years in western Massachusetts.

He wasn’t done yet.

TOMORROW: Two years later, Marshall Bloom returns to the Valley and his world unravels.

Former Gazette staff writer Martin Dobrow is a professor of communications at Springfield College. Marshall Bloom is one of the central figures in his forthcoming book about civil rights.



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