ST. AUGUSTINE (AP) — When Robert B. Hayling first got to St. Augustine, he’d ride around the pretty tourist town in a red Volkswagen convertible, its white top down, his boxer dog leaning its head into the salty breeze.
It was the early 1960s, and Hayling, a Tallahassee native and son of a Florida A&M professor, was young and confident, a black man making a mark on a city where it was hard for a man who looked like him to get ahead. He was a dentist with a growing family and a thriving, integrated practice. He was a retired Air Force first lieutenant used to being looked up to, by men both black and white.
Within five years, though, he’d be gone from this town. His family in danger. His practice ruined. And his boxer long dead from the barrage of bullets fired, high and low, into the house where his children and pregnant wife went about their routine one night.
As the civil rights struggle made headlines around the country, he moved to act in St. Augustine. He volunteered to be adviser to the local NAACP’s youth council, supporting and encouraging the demonstrators who eventually attracted media attention and national figures – including Martin Luther King Jr. – to St. Augustine in the months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Most of the demonstrators were young, far younger than Hayling, who was in his 30s. They looked up to the charismatic dentist. They still do, said Purcell Conway, once one of the teenage activists: “Here’s a man who gave up everything. He lost everything. When it came to his wealth, his status, he lost it.”
Maude Burroughs Jackson, a college student drawn into the movement, compared him to the pre-eminent civil-rights leader of the time. “There was something about Dr. King that made you feel like everything is going to be all right, there’s nothing to fear. That’s the same way with Dr. Hayling,” she said.
David Nolan, a St. Augustine historian, said the movement needed a strong-willed outsider to lead it. Hayling was a natural candidate. “Frankly they needed someone who hadn’t been here all the time, who had not made his arrangements with the white community, who was not beholden to them,” he said. “It took somebody like that, somebody with that kind of dignity and professional background, with the fact that he had grown up at Florida A&M; black colleges then were sort of the utopia in the midst of Jim Crow.”
Then there was this: “He was not going to be scared,” Nolan said. Hayling encountered resistance, of course. Some came from blacks in St. Augustine, who thought it best to not push too hard, too quickly. And much came from whites in St. Augustine and beyond, outraged that the activists challenged the status quo. White opposition came from racists such as the Ku Klux Klan, but also from many in the city’s power structure, which ignored and opposed the activists at almost every turn.
Time, though, has a way, sometimes, of smoothing out disputes. In 2003, the City Commission agreed to rename Scott Street, where he lived, to Dr. R.B. Hayling Place. Last year, St. Augustine gave him the city’s highest honor, the Order of La Florida. He was the first black so honored.
In his hometown of Tallahassee last month, Hayling was honored in the Capitol building, whose lawn he used to mow, many decades ago. Hayling was inducted into the state’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame, alongside the late James Weldon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph.
Speakers praised him, and he got standing ovations. The lieutenant governor was there, as was a state representative and the chair of state’s Commission on Human Relations. So were many of the St. Augustine civil-rights protesters from 50 years ago, old men and women now, who traveled hours to see their leader get what he deserved.
Hayling is 84, and lives in Lauderhill. He has a full head of white hair and a dignified manner, speaking in a measured, still-strong voice. His wife, Athea, his college sweetheart, died in 2012 after 58 years of marriage; her voice is still on his answering machine.
In his family’s first two years in St. Augustine, after moving there in 1960, they had few problems. Operators of lunch counters where other blacks were turned away even told him he could eat there; after all, he was the dentist.
That easy life could have continued, he said, “if we stayed in our places and maintained the status quo of St. Augustine.”
But Hayling would not do that. As St. Augustine prepared to mark its 400th anniversary, he pushed to have blacks included in organizing the celebration, which included a dinner featuring Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
After he let the White House know blacks would be excluded from the dinner, Johnson threatened not to come. The city’s leaders relented, and 12 black citizens, including Hayling, were allowed to attend. But they were required to sit at a separate table removed from the crowd, guarded by Secret Service.
City leaders also tried to mollify the activists with a promised meeting to discuss their matters. When Hayling and company showed up, they were alone but for a tape recorder on which they were asked to leave their grievances.
That led to months of rallies, sit-ins, protests and counter-protests. Business leaders and even church leaders fought the efforts of the civil-rights activists.
“We tried many, many churches on Sunday, to try to pray,” he said. “When they wouldn’t let us in, we would kneel down outside and pray.”
There was violence, some of it aimed at Hayling, In 1963, he and other activists were caught spying on a KKK rally and badly beaten. He recognized a woman at the rally as one of his patients. But that didn’t protect him: She identified him as a dentist, and so the thugs took care to wound the hands he used every day in his profession.
Hayling can’t say for sure why he risked everything.
“I don’t know. I guess you could call it stupidness, or stubbornness,” he said. “We had no idea what we were getting into.”
Mostly, he was fed up with foolishness, with unfairness. He’d gone to college, gotten an advanced degree, joined medical associations. The military had been egalitarian, mostly.
“I thought I had paid my dues and earned my citizenship,” he said. “But my country was not ready to accept me. I didn’t want exceptions. I just wanted to be equal.”
He was, and is, a proud man, proud of what he has accomplished. He was headstrong, too, even coming to odds with the national NAACP. He said the organization claimed St. Augustine was too small to maintain a civil-rights campaign, and then threatened to withdraw the group’s charter if picketing continued.
So Hayling didn’t waste any time: He packed up the charter and all its paperwork, and mailed it back to the NAACP – “special delivery, with a return receipt.” After that he affiliated with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, and ended up working alongside King and other prominent civil-rights leaders drawn to St. Augustine.
The atmosphere in the city was tense: Before his house was fired upon, he’d been told that the Ku Klux Klan was bringing in sharpshooters; Hayling thought they’d target his office, not his home. “Many of us were on guard, around, in observation posts around the office. Maybe they had observers, too.”
Many considered Hayling dangerous, especially after he went on a local radio station and spoke about self-defense. He said he was misquoted: “The press went running off (saying) that the doctor said he was going to shoot first and ask questions later.”
Repeatedly, since then, he has said that these were his actual words: “I said I intended to defend myself, my family and my property with all the vim, vigor and vitality at my command.”
Hayling had firearms training in the military, but he said he never armed himself during the civil-rights
campaign. Other activists did, though: “We had individual people who decided they felt naked without some sort of shotgun in their homes.”
Even after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, St. Augustine was slow to change. Feeling his family was unsafe, Hayling left St. Augustine in 1965 and moved south. For years, he said, he would only come back unannounced, though that precaution has since become unnecessary.
Some hearts, he said, can’t be budged, and many problems remain. But much has changed in the 50 years since his young activists took to the city’s streets and plazas.
“I think many, many people in today’s time now realize that either we get our act together, we come together, or we’re going to be pulled apart, and the country will have to answer somewhere down the line,” he said. “I’m quite optimistic.”