The St. Augustine Movement in Florida, led primarily by Dr. Robert B. Hayling, was a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle and one of the factors that helped the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gain passage. Although St. Augustine was mostly white, in the early 1960s Blacks started moving in who were smacked with the reality of segregation in the region.
Dr. Hayling came to St. Augustine in 1960, a former Air Force officer and dentist who set up practice in the area. Accepted by all, Hayling and his family thrived as his integrated practice grew.
Enamored by the civil rights movement, Hayling decided to joined the NAACP. Serving as the group’s youth adviser, he helped lead a protest to the city’s Whites-only 400th anniversary in 1963. A profile of Hayling in the St. Augustine Record recalls the campaign. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was slated to speak at the anniversary celebration, learned that Blacks weren’t allowed and threatened not to attend. In response, the organizers allowed Hayling and 11 other Black citizens to join the dinner, but ordered them to sit at separate tables.
Hayling and the NAACP were promised meetings with city leaders, who routinely stood them up. This led to more protests and sit-ins. Violence against the NAACP and Hayling was a frequent occurrence. After he and a group of activists were discovered eavesdropping on a KKK rally in September 1963, they were beaten severely. The KKK responded with a nighttime raid on the Black neighborhood of Lincolnville. The KKK fired shots into homes, and was met with return fire which killed a Klansman.
An NAACP member, Rev. Goldie Eubanks, and three others were charged with murder but were later acquitted. The NAACP didn’t approve of Hayling and the St. Augustine chapter’s tactics, and he preemptively left the group before they could excuse him.
Hayling and his compatriots then contacted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for help. In the spring of 1964, Hayling made a call to college students in Northern Florida to come to St. Augustine instead of the beach for their annual spring break. That event led to the SCLC’s increased presence in the city where violent segregationists often marred their non-violent demonstrations. When the SCLC’s attempted to integrate nearby Anastasia Island, Black protestors were driven into the water and nearly drowned.
When King was scheduled to stay in a cottage in the area in June, it went up in flames. Hayling had armed guards surrounding Rev. King during his visit, in conflict with the SCLC’s nonviolence policy. St. Augustine was the only city in Florida where Rev. King was arrested.
A grand jury ordered a 30-day “cooling-off” period for the SCLC to withdraw from St. Augustine, which went ignored. The situation would reach a fever pitch in June at a local hotel. One of the most stirring images of the Movement took place when James Brock, the manager of the segregated Monson Motor Lodge, was caught on camera allegedly dumping acid into a pool where Black and White protestors were swimming together in defiance. The photos were broadcast around the world, and galvanized supporters of the movement.
Tired of the violence he and his family still faced, Hayling left St. Augustine in 1965, well after the passing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. As much of the South grappled with the changing laws, support of the Act was slow to come to some parts of the country. Dr. Hayling, now 84, is still active and remains a notable civil rights figure to this day. He was inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall Of Fame last month.