Historic City News was informed Wednesday that Dr. Robert B. Hayling, the dentist who led the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, Florida in the 1960s, passed away at his home in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, December 20, 2015, according to word received from his sister, Mrs. Yvonne Clarke of Sarasota.
He had celebrated his 86th birthday on November 20. A private family service will be held 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 U.S. 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, Tennessee, 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 in the Ancient City. St. Augustine was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary, as the nation’s oldest city, on an all-white basis, and Dr. Hayling wrote to federal officials urging them not to support a segregated effort. When then 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–not to go to the beaches, but 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. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference–of which Dr. Hayling became the local head–came to the Ancient City, 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.
While it brought about widespread changes, and inspired the world, Hayling and other civil rights activists remained targets in St. Augustine. He remembered in later years how he was forced to get all his insurance from Lloyd’s of London, because others were afraid to touch him. 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 the Ancient City. In the 1970s he moved on to Fort Lauderdale and practiced dentistry there until his retirement.
The 21st century saw Dr. Hayling go from pariah to most honored citizen. 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 (still a pathbreaker, he became the first, and only, Black recipient of that honor). 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 Dr. 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 the state of Florida on July 2, 2014–the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Awards were not only local. He was there in 2010 when the governor and 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. Anyone who goes to see the governor today first walks by a bronze plaque in the lobby of the Capitol honoring Dr. Hayling. At the ceremony for the award, Hayling remarked that as a youngster he had mowed the lawn in front of the Capitol building. In 2015 he was honored by the Florida Dental Association at its annual convention, and his picture was on the front page of the American Dental Association News on August 17.
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 invariable wrote his name along with “Never Give Up!”
He would remark, when he spoke here, how nice it was to be able to drive up from Fort Lauderdale and be able to stop along the way to get a bite to eat or use the bathroom–something that was not possible before the battle he led in the 1960s. 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.”