Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dr. Robert S. Hayling, D.D.S., R.I.P.: St. Augustine Movement Founder, Dies at 86

One of my heroes has died.
I first met Dr. Robert S. Hayling over beers on Washington Street some nine or ten years ago, with my late activist friend David Thundershield Queen. He was a mensch who helped galvanize the St. Augustine Movement, which helped LBJ overcome the filibuster and enact the 1964 Civil Rights Act. he loved our idea for the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore, with a Civil Rights Museum.
The last time I saw Dr. Hayling was on February 28, 2015, the night of the last Menendez Noche de Gala, at the rally for Michelle O'Connell outside the Lightner Museum and City Hall, as he, Commissioner Leanna Freeman and Flagler College President William Abare were walking past the statue of Menendez. I briefly told Dr. Hayling about the Michelle O'Connell case, and he said, "Let me know if there is anything I can do." Now he belongs to the ages.

'Never Give Up': Dr. Robert B. Hayling, father of St. Augustine's civil rights movement, passes away
Posted: December 23, 2015 - 1:47pm | Updated: December 23, 2015 - 5:04pm

Dr. Robert B. Hayling, hailed as the “father” of St. Augustine’s civil rights movement, passed away at his home in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, according to family members.

Hayling, 86, led demonstrations and endured violence in St. Augustine during the 1960s, actions that pressured elected officials to sign the Voting Rights Act.

According to a press release provided by the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum, a private family service will be followed at a later date by a public memorial event in St. Augustine.

A native of Tallahassee where his father was a longtime teacher at what is now Florida A&M University, Hayling was one of four children, all of whom went on to earn advanced degrees. After graduating from Florida A&M, he joined the Air Force in 1951, serving as a first lieutenant at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

In 1955, he enrolled in Meharry Medical College in Nashville to study dentistry. While there he had a front row seat to the making of history, as the Nashville student sit-in movement gave the nation future civil rights leaders like John Lewis (now a congressman from Georgia), Diane Nash (a leader of the Freedom Rides) and Rev. C. T. Vivian (a recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom). A black attorney and city councilman, Z. Alexander Looby, was Hayling’s jurisprudence teacher, and when Looby’s home was dynamited by segregationists in 1960, the blast shattered windows in Hayling’s dormitory across the street.

In 1960, Dr. Hayling moved to St. Augustine and opened his practice in the dental office that had been built by the late Dr. Rudolph Gordon. It was the first medical or dental office built in the Ancient City without racially segregated waiting rooms. He was obligated, by the terms of his scholarship, to spend five years in a “medically underserved” area of Florida. He became adviser to the NAACP Youth Council, which organized protests against segregated lunch counters.

St. Augustine was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary, as the nation’s oldest city, on an all-white basis, and Hayling wrote to federal officials urging them not to support a segregated effort. When Vice President Lyndon Johnson came to dedicate the first of the restored buildings on St. George Street in 1963, Hayling’s efforts led to two tables being set aside at the banquet in the Ponce de Leon Hotel for black residents.

The reaction was severe. Hayling and three companions (James Hauser, Clyde Jenkins and James Jackson) were beaten at a Ku Klux Klan rally in September 1963. His home was shot up in February 1964, killing his beloved boxer dog and narrowly missing his pregnant wife. A group of Youth Council activists — who came to be known as “The St. Augustine Four” — spent six months in jail and reform school for asking to be served at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. After protests by Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, and others, it took a special meeting of the governor and cabinet of Florida to release them, just as the state prepared to open its pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1964.

In 1964, Hayling sent an invitation to college students to come to St. Augustine for Spring Break to take part in civil rights efforts. Four socially prominent Boston women, including Mary Parkman Peabody, the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts, came with them, and their arrest put the situation in St. Augustine on the front pages of newspapers around the country. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference — of which Dr. Hayling became the local head — came to St. Augustine, which became the stage for a great moral drama enacted before a world audience. The result was the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.

In 1965, his dental practice destroyed, he moved to Cocoa Beach and helped find work for other civil rights supporters who could no longer work in St. Augustine. In the 1970s, he moved on to Fort Lauderdale and practiced dentistry there until his retirement.

The 21st century brought honors for Hayling. In 2003, the street where his house had once been shot up was renamed “Dr. R. B. Hayling Place,” and a banner over the street for the renaming ceremony hailed him as “The Father of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Succeeding years saw many more honors. He was given St. Augustine’s two highest: the de Aviles Award in 2011, and the Order of La Florida in 2013. State Senator Tony Hill sponsored the annual “Dr. Robert B. Hayling Award of Valor,” which was presented to civil rights heroes. A mural in the window of the Wells Fargo Bank overlooking the plaza includes a photo of Hayling. The bank is located in the old Woolworth’s, where the first sit-in of the local movement took place in 1960. He helped dedicate his old dental office at 79 Bridge Street, which became the first civil rights museum in Florida on July 2, 2014, the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Awards were not just local. Hayling was there in 2010 when Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet apologized to those who had been arrested in the civil rights movement and expunged the records that had made it difficult for some of them to get jobs for many decades afterwards. In 2014, Hayling was inducted, along with James Weldon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph, into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. At the ceremony for the award, Hayling remarked that as a youngster he had mowed the lawn in front of the Capitol building. Earlier this year, he was honored by the Florida Dental Association at its annual convention.

He was a regular visitor to St. Augustine, getting together with old (and new) friends, attending the annual ACCORD Freedom Trail luncheons (there are Freedom Trail markers on the two houses where he lived, as well as his old office), speaking to local schools and organizations (most recently the tourism group of the Chamber of Commerce), taking part in the dedication of the Foot Soldiers Monument in the Plaza, and going to funerals for old civil rights colleagues like James and Hattie Lee White and Clyde Jenkins. He was often asked for his autograph, and invariably wrote his name along with “Never Give Up!”

Delores Miller Parks, one of the young activists from the 1960s who went on to a career in banking, wrote in 2012: “His sacrifices, dedication and commitment paid off. He fought a good fight and lived to witness and enjoy the rewards of his victories.”

Audrey Nell Edwards, one of the St. Augustine Four, said: “He motivated us. He made us feel like we were doing something right, and he backed us up a hundred percent in that.”

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