As a civil rights leader from St. Augustine, Florida, Dr. Robert B. Hayling worked closely with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to desegregate the nation’s oldest city. King praised Hayling’s “driving spirit,” and wrote that his “dedication and sacrifice in the civil rights movement [could] never be measured”(King, 1964).
The son of a college professor, Hayling grew up in Tallahassee, Florida. He graduated from Florida A&M University (BS, 1951) and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force before being trained as a dentist at Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1960, Dr. Hayling set up his dental practice in St. Augustine. He was shocked by the extreme racism he witnessed in St. Augustine, although he served both white and black patients.
By 1963, Hayling was advisor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council in St. Augustine. Made up mainly of high school students, the group was more strident in its demands for desegregation than much of the adult population. In early 1963, Hayling threatened public demonstrations against segregated facilities and urged Vice President Lyndon Johnson not to attend the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations if they were segregated as planned. Although Johnson’s insistence led officials to integrate the celebrations, city officials ignored their additional promise to set up a biracial committee to address the concerns of the black population.
Continued protests led by Hayling were uniformly met with resistance by white residents, city officials, and the police. During the summer and fall of 1963, black residents faced violence at the hands of white segregationists. In a controversial move, Hayling stated publicly that he had armed himself and others in the black community, arguing that the police were unable or unwilling to protect them. In September 1963, Hayling and two others were beaten and nearly killed at a Ku Klux Klan rally. The NAACP distanced itself from Hayling’s militant statements, and after months of escalation and grand jury findings that blamed racial tensions on Hayling and other activists, Hayling resigned from the NAACP and turned to SCLC for support in St. Augustine.
SCLC organized a high-profile desegregation campaign for Easter week, 1964. Hayling's approach to dealing with white violence had been very provocative, and SCLC’s first step was to train the community in the techniques of nonviolent direct action. SCLC recruited white northern college students to spend their spring vacations in St. Augustine and began a series of night marches, pickets, and sit-ins. Hundreds were arrested, including Hayling, King, and Mary Peabody—the elderly mother of the sitting governor of Massachusetts—which brought national media attention to St. Augustine.
Over the next several months, Hayling and SCLC officials led demonstrations and sought redress in the courts. When an 18 June 1964 grand jury suggested that SCLC withdraw for a 30-day cooling-off period, Hayling and King released a joint statement declaring, “There will be neither peace nor tranquility in this community until the righteous demands of the Negro are fully met” (King, 18 June 1964).
After Florida’s Governor Farris Bryant declared his intention, on 30 June 1964, to set up a biracial commission to address race relations in St. Augustine, SCLC left the city the next day, anticipating that President Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law on 2 July. City business leaders pledged to follow the new law, but de facto segregation continued as white business owners who integrated suffered intimidation, pickets, and boycotts by segregationists. Hayling and others in the black community felt abandoned by SCLC’s abrupt departure and some appealed for King’s return to St. Augustine. Although SCLC contributed further financial support to St. Augustine, the organization never returned to the city, and the St. Augustine group was left to bear the brunt of white backlash on its own.
With his dental practice financially nonviable after the loss of his white patients and the safety of his wife and children uncertain, Hayling decided to move to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in 1966. Hayling was the first black dentist in the state to be elected to the local, regional, and state bodies of the American Dental Association. In 2003, nearly four decades after he left St. Augustine, the city’s mayor issued a Certificate of Recognition for Hayling’s “contributions to the betterment of our society,” and a street was named after him.
City of St. Augustine, “Proclamation: Certificate of Recognition,” 20 June 2003, http://www.ci.staugustine.fl.us/pressreleases/6_03/proclamations/robhayling.html (site discontinued).
Colburn, Racial Change and Community Crisis, 1985.
Hartley, “The St. Augustine Racial Disorders of 1964,” in St. Augustine, Florida, 1963–1964, ed. Garrow, 1989.
King, Answer to Presentment of Grand Jury, 19 June 1964, PGC-GEU-S.
King and C. T. Vivian to Hayling, 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.