Special to South Florida Times
In one of his final acts as governor, Charlie Crist expressed regret to civil rights marchers who were beaten, spat on and thrown in jail for protesting segregated beaches and lunch counters in St. Augustine during the state’s tumultuous Jim Crow era.
Crist and the Cabinet, comprising the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, also adopted a resolution on Dec. 9 recommending that the state expunge the criminal records of Florida’s civil rights movement heroes.
The departing Republican-turned-Independent governor, who lost his bid to become a U.S. Senator, was joined by Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, the members of his cabinet. It was among their last acts sitting as the clemency board. They leave office Jan. 4 following the November elections.
They formally asked law enforcement agencies to expunge the protesters' arrest records.
The board acted on a request from state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, who unsuccessfully sought to pass a bill in the 2010 Legislative session to clear the marchers' records.
Dr. Robert Hayling, a retired dentist who now lives in Fort Lauderdale and is considered the father of St. Augustine’s civil rights movement, attended the meeting.
Hayling, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders such as Andrew Young, provided his St. Augustine dental office as a meeting place for many of the planning sessions with King. Pro-bono lawyers who traveled to St. Augustine to represent jailed demonstrators also used his office as their headquarters.
“This is an honor we did not anticipate,” Hayling said at the event. “Thank you so much. This is a moment in life we will never forget.”
The ACLU of Florida applauded the move. “We are pleased to see the governor honor the legacy of civil rights freedom fighters,” said Howard Simon, executive director. “With the establishment of a civil rights hall of fame at the capitol, and clearing of the records of civil rights pioneers, our elected leaders have underscored the importance of the civil rights movement in securing equality for all Floridians.”
Simon expressed gratitude to Crist and the rest of the clemency board, along with Hill, state Rep. Alan B. Williams, D-District 8, of the Florida Black Legislative Caucus, and the Rev. Thomas Wright of the Florida SCLC for their work on the issue.
The resolution approved by the Governor and Cabinet is a recommendation. It calls on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to “immediately act to expunge any and all arrests and conviction records for which the related charges or convictions were dismissed or purged by court order or for which the subjects were released without prosecution.”
The resolution also asks the FDLE to waive the $75 application fee and to place the records on file in the state's archives to “forever serve as a living and viable testament to the courage, ideals and bravery during those fateful months.”
St. Augustine now has a Freedom Trail noting its historic role in the civil rights movement that includes Hayling‘s dental office and home.
Civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due wrote about her experiences in Florida’s civil rights movement in the novel Freedom in the Family, co-written with her daughter, author and former Miami Herald reporter Tananarive Due.
Patricia Due said the civil rights movement was far more treacherous than many realized.
An excerpt from Freedom in the Family recounts the plight of some of the civil rights movement’s participants.
Renee Michelle Harris may be reached at RMHarris15@Bellsouth.net.
Photo: Charlie Crist