TALLAHASSEE — In a moving tribute tinged with sorrow, the state of Florida officially expressed regret Thursday to civil rights marchers who were beaten and jailed for protesting segregated beaches and lunch counters in St. Augustine in the 1960s.
Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet, meeting as the Board of Executive Clemency, formally asked law enforcement agencies to expunge the protesters' arrest records.
Some young marchers, now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, began to weep as Crist read a resolution noting the injustices they suffered decades ago.
Their leader, Dr. Robert Hayling, now 81, a retired dentist living in Fort Lauderdale, expressed their gratitude.
"This is an honor we did not anticipate," Hayling said, his voice trembling with emotion. "Thank you so much. This is a moment in life we will never forget."
More than 250 people, who packed a hearing room for clemency cases, twice gave the group standing ovations.
Recalling his experiences, Hayling said, "My home was shot up. My family dog was killed within the house while my pregnant wife and two daughters were still in the house."
Looking at how things have changed, he added: "Even though we blazed a trail, there's still much to be done."
Other aging marchers, who called themselves the "Freedom Fighters," recalled being spat on and assaulted with water hoses, cattle prods and police dogs for trying to integrate America's oldest city in 1963 and 1964. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been invited to lead the protest, which was timed to coincide with the rigidly segregated city's 400th anniversary celebration.
Massive arrests followed. Along with dozens of idealistic young people, the police swept up King, along with the 72-year-old mother of Massachusetts Gov. Endicott Peabody.
St. Augustine now has a Freedom Trail noting its historic role in the civil rights movement.
The resolution passed by Crist and the 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."
In addition, the resolution orders the arrest records themselves to be placed for public viewing in the state archives to "forever serve as a living and viable testament to the courage, ideals and bravery during those fateful months."
"I think it makes a great statement about where Florida is today vs. where part of Florida was back then,'' Crist said as he signed the resolution during a brief recess.
Thursday's highly emotional events were set in motion by state Sen. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat who unsuccessfully sought to pass a bill in the 2010 legislative session to clear the marchers' records.
Some said the arrests blocked their efforts to find work, or made them afraid to apply for jobs, mistakenly thinking they had felony convictions.
Now, in the waning days of Crist's term, the Republican-turned-independent governor accepted Hill's request for a resolution before the Board of Executive Clemency.
A wire story from the St. Petersburg Evening Independent of April 1, 1964, carried the headline, "Police disperse St. Augustine Negro children."
The story said: "About 60 Negro students, some in their early teens, were stopped by city and county police, some with trained dogs, shortly after they had moved out of the Negro district. About 40 were loaded onto a large truck and hauled off to jail, already crowded with Negroes and whites."
The marchers, black and white, some just teenagers at the time, were active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
They included Purcell Conway, 62, of Palm Coast, who was 15 when he was beaten in his native St. Augustine. Retired now, he grew up to become a New York City police lieutenant. He was one of the few on hand Thursday who was never arrested.
"I was just fed up with the way I was being treated and the way my parents were being treated. The segregation, the bigotry, the disrespect," Conway said. "This is great. This is long overdue. It's bittersweet, actually."
Joanne Martin-Hughes, a retired teacher in Sarasota who was a 20-year-old college student at the time, displayed her arrest record for trespassing.
"With that cattle prod, the electricity went right through your whole body," she said.
Maude Burroughs Jackson, 62, of Middleburg recalled cooking a steak and salad for King on a small toaster oven. But her other memories of that time were not as enjoyable, such as housing conditions at the city jail.
"They built something you would put your chickens or your dogs in — a wire pen," she said. "Then at night you would hear them riding around the jail and that was very, very frightening. We were very young at that time."
Even though white children riding on a school bus would spit on her and her friends and throw trash at them as they walked along the road, Jackson said, "I was determined that life would one day be better."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.