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Dr. Robert B. Hayling

Dr. Hayling with Dr. King and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young.

Dr. Robert Hayling (right) with Dr. King and Atlanta mayor (1982-1990) Andrew Young. Photo courtesy of Frank Murray

Dr. Robert B. Hayling has been hailed as the "father" of St. Augustine's civil rights movement. He organized demonstrations and coordinated visiting activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King. His brave crusade brought him rejection from many locals and violent retaliation from white racists. But it also got the "White Only" signs out of St. Augustine.

Dr. Hayling, Meet St. Augustine

Like many newcomers to St. Augustine, Robert Hayling was struck by the ancient city's primitiveness. He came from a highly educated Tallahassee family, served as an officer in the Air Force, and graduated medical school in Nashville. He was the first black dentist in Florida elected to the American Dental Association.

Opening for business here in 1960, Dr. Hayling found St. Augustine complacent about racial discrimination. He joined the local NAACP in their protest of a segregated celebration of the city's 400th anniversary. But the group was so concerned about peace-keeping that their efforts amounted to merely asking white authorities for equal rights. That did very little good in a town where the power structure was predominantly white and racist.

Dr. Robert Hayling, the new dentist in St. Augustine.

Dr. Hayling with Lyn Murray

Dr. Hayling the Wave-maker

The desire for self-respect blazed stronger among the town's black youth, who weren't as concerned as their parents about the repercussions. So Dr. Hayling organized the more motivated teens into a Youth Council of the NAACP. At his dental office, he taught them methods of nonviolent activism. He arranged picketing and sit-ins at white-only restaurants, and wade-ins at a white-only pool and beach. Because such segregation was still legally enforced, he was arrested many times with local demonstrators and visiting supporters.

Many black adults disapproved of the movement. For one thing, their jobs with white employers were at risk. For another, the demonstrations brought hostile white supremacists to St. Augustine from surrounding areas. However, more people joined the black crusade when speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson came to town to promote integration. Following Dr. King's and Dr. Hayling's example, activists young and old voluntarily endured verbal and sometimes physical abuse by racist business owners and patrons.

Dr. Hayling's composed nature wore thin when the abuse escalated to death threats on his telephone. A reporter looking for the dentist's response to the threats got an answer racist America was not ready to hear. "I and the others have armed," said Dr. Hayling. "We will shoot first and answer questions later. We are not going to die like Medgar Evers."

That reporter lucked into one of the most sensationalized quotes in the national media. It was publicized over and over as an announcement of armed uprising of the black masses. The aftershocks led the NAACP and many black townspeople to disassociate with Dr. Hayling for sheer reputation. Nevertheless, he continued leading faithful volunteers in organized demonstrations, never raising a weapon against those frequently raised at him. He made national news again when a particular volunteer was arrested for participating in one of Dr. Hayling's sit-ins - the 72-year old, white mother of the governor of Massachusetts.


 
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