1. Opinion

St. Augustine haunted by ghosts of civil rights turmoil 50 years ago

After The Press Conference: King Encourages Demonstrators.  Segregation: St. Augustine
After The Press Conference: King Encourages Demonstrators. Segregation: St. Augustine
Published Jun. 29, 2014

No city in Florida embraces its past with as much ardor as St. Augustine. As the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, history is its main industry. Hordes of tourists and busloads of schoolkids troop through its streets to watch the (pretend) guards patrolling Fort Matanzas, to fire the (fake) cannon at the Pirate & Treasure Museum, to sip from the (phony) Fountain of Youth.

But there is a part of St. Augustine's history that its residents have only recently begun to come to grips with — a painfully real, painfully violent episode from which the city has yet to fully recover, although the nation continues to reap its benefits.

Fifty years ago, on July 2, 1964, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. The act's sweeping provisions prohibit discrimination in public places, provide for the integration of schools and other public facilities and declare employment discrimination to be illegal. That law might never have passed Congress had it not been for the blood shed at St. Augustine.

Just ask Dr. Robert Hayling about it.

Hayling, then a dentist in his 30s, spearheaded the St. Augustine protests. He's the one who launched the sit-ins, brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town, and paid the price for his crusade when he was captured by the Ku Klux Klan.

The firebrand is now 85, a soft-spoken, white-haired man with a mischievous smile. He's outlived most everyone from those days — the racists who beat him, the sheriff who turned a blind eye to the attacks, the mayor who was convinced he and all the other civil rights activists were Communists.

But he still has vivid memories of all of them, of what they did trying to hold on to a world where whites got preferential treatment on everything and blacks couldn't get seated in a restaurant.

He remembers, in particular, the day he met with the city's leading white businessman, a bank president and former mayor, who was fuming with frustration. The banker demanded to know what it would take to end the protests that were chasing away all the tourists.

"He asked what it would take to satisfy me," Hayling recalled, "and I said, 'Let me be an ordinary citizen.' "

A black dentist

Hayling grew up in Florida, but he wasn't from St. Augustine. That made the difference, said David Colburn, author of Racial Crisis and Community Conflict: St. Augustine, Florida, 1877-1980. Black residents who grew up in St. Augustine accepted segregation as something they didn't like but were reluctant to challenge. Not Hayling. Hayling hailed from Tallahassee, where his father taught at Florida A&M. His summer jobs included trimming shrubbery around Florida's old Capitol. After a stint as a lieutenant in the Air Force, he earned a degree as a dentist, got married to his college sweetheart and headed for St. Augustine, where the longtime black dentist was retiring.

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As he drove around in his red Volkswagen convertible, the city seemed strangely confounding. He'd see black and white men who had been working side-by-side for months on a shrimp boat get off in port and go opposite directions as if they were strangers. He noticed the sole black city employee was a policeman who wasn't allowed to wear a uniform. He wondered why white patients who didn't balk at letting him stick his fingers in their mouths would refuse to let him eat where they ate.

Longtime black and white residents were accustomed to living in such segregated circumstances. Hayling was not.

In 1963, St. Augustine began gearing up for a celebration of its 400th birthday, an event sure to attract a record number of tourists. Merchants "wondered can we get enough cash registers in town to hold all the money that's going to come in," local historian David Nolan said.

When Hayling heard that the city hoped to get $350,000 from the federal government to pay for the party, he saw a chance to change things. But every time he tried, he hit a solid wall of white resistance. When Hayling and his fellow activists threatened picket lines at an upcoming luncheon honoring the vice president because it included no blacks, two all-black tables were put in — as far as possible from all the white tables.

When the protesters requested a forum where city officials would listen to black residents' grievances, it turned out to be an empty room with a tape recorder that they knew no one would ever listen to.

When he dispatched well-dressed teenagers — because their parents feared losing their jobs — to start sit-ins at area restaurants and get arrested, a judge sent four of them to adult prison for long sentences. Their crime? Asking a restaurant to serve them a hamburger and a Coke.

The judge's unjust sentence sparked such widespread consternation among St. Augustine's black population that the protests and sit-ins at last began drawing hundreds of adults.

To Sheriff L.O. Davis — who happened to be one of Hayling's patients — Hayling was a rabble-rouser with no following. The dentist was one of just a handful of malcontents "muttering and fussing around," the sheriff told an interviewer in the 1970s.

But what Hayling and his cohorts were doing had riled up the KKK enough to attract white-power rabble-rousers from around the country. They poured into St. Augustine, spoiling for a fight — firebombing houses, beating the marchers, driving around town brandishing guns.

They shot into Hayling's house, missing his family but killing his dog. Hayling hustled his wife and children to his parents' home in Tallahassee to keep them safe, then went back alone.

"Some said I didn't have enough sense to know how much danger I was in," said Hayling, chuckling.

One night in September 1963, Hayling got wind of a big klan rally outside town. He and three other men drove out on a back road hoping they could safely spy on the group and learn their plans. Instead they were caught and dragged into the middle of the cross-burning. Furious klan members armed with wrenches and chains beat them savagely. When the klan members realized one of their victims was a dentist, they made sure to break Hayling's hands.

One witness said that women in the crowd were yelling, "Castrate the bastards!" Before that could happen, Sheriff Davis showed up and shut everything down. Four klan members were charged in the beatings but later acquitted. Because a klan member claimed Hayling had a gun, he was charged with assault, convicted and fined $100.

The bloodiest campaign

Hayling repeatedly appealed for outside help, looking to the national movement leaders who had battled with white supremacists in Birmingham, Ala. Finally, in spring 1964, he got a green light from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Soon King's fiery aide Hosea Williams was leading marches through downtown into what was still called "the Slave Market" amid crowds of jeering rednecks throwing rocks, bricks and bottles, even attacking newsmen covering the march.

At one march, another of King's aides, the coolly analytical Andrew Young, tried talking to some of the angry whites lining their route, asking for peace. Someone hit him from behind with a blackjack. When he fell to the ground, they kicked him repeatedly. Police stood by and did nothing.

"St. Augustine turned out to be the SCLC's most violent and bloody campaign," Young wrote years later. When King arrived, he rented a beach home — which someone then burned to the ground.

The sheriff arrested hundreds of marchers at a time, cramming them into the overcrowded jail. The SCLC took him to court and a federal judge ruled that they had a right to march without interference — a ruling that set a precedent for similar protests throughout the South, but which also led to the judge being ostracized by nearly everyone he knew.

Every march and sit-in of the SCLC campaign was choreographed to bolster the argument for passing the Civil Rights Act. First proposed by President John F. Kennedy before his 1963 assassination, it was bogged down in the Senate, frozen by the longest filibuster in history.

King and his aides wanted the protests in St. Augustine to remind everyone of why the bill was needed. The upheaval there had begun garnering widespread news coverage. Nuns and rabbis and liberal white protesters drove down to join King's drive. When the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts was arrested during a protest at a whites-only drugstore, she spent two days in jail. The next day she appeared on NBC's Today show to denounce St. Augustine as "a town festering in violence and hate" — not exactly what the tourism-dependent businesspeople wanted to hear on national television.

The mayor then got equal time on Today to claim that the governor's mother was just taking "the word of a local Negro dentist about conditions," and actually his city had had no racial problems until all those outsiders showed up.

The protests became more creative. A group of black and white students in swim trunks tried to integrate a whites-only beach, an event dubbed a "wade-in." Angry whites beat them, and then state troopers waded in with their nightsticks and beat both sides.

"There was blood in the water," Hayling recalled.

King tried to get a meal at the Monson Motor Lodge. Owner Jimmy Brock refused to let him in, much less serve him. King was handcuffed and hauled off to jail, making St. Augustine one of only three American cities to bust the future Nobel Peace Prize winner. In a letter King dictated from jail, he called St. Augustine "the most lawless community in which we have worked."

Days later, a group of white and black protesters held a swim-in by jumping into the Monson's pool. Brock, outraged, grabbed a jug of muriatic acid, normally used for cleaning the tile, and poured it into the pool to drive them out. His act was captured by network and wire service photographers. If the concept of "going viral" had existed in the 1960s, that would have been an apt description of what happened to that image.

The following day, the 83-day filibuster ended and the Senate passed the bill. Shortly after, Congress approved the final version, and Johnson hurriedly signed it into law.

To test the law, Young and others went to the Monson for lunch. A nervous waitress seated them, took their orders and served their food without incident. That night racist thugs fire-bombed the restaurant to show their displeasure with their former hero.

The SCLC declared victory, packed up and headed for the next battlefield needing big-name generals. But the fight for integration in St. Augustine wasn't over, Hayling said. Businesses fearful of facing the same fiery fate as the Monson renounced integration, and so his local group had to sue them individually to force them to comply with the newly passed law.

Its other history

In 1965, Hayling left town, moving his family to South Florida to start over.

"I stayed as long as I could," he said.

Other African-American families abandoned St. Augustine as well, said Nolan, the local historian. Some had been there for multiple generations. Now that they had seen their white neighbors' true nature, they couldn't abide the place any longer.

The city they left behind was economically crippled. One estimate said St. Augustine lost $5 million in tourism revenue because of the bad publicity. It took years to rebuild the city's image — and during that time, no one wanted to talk about its role in the Civil Rights Act.

When Nolan moved there in the 1970s, he said, he asked a few longtime residents about it and "was quietly taken aside and told, 'You must never mention the name of Martin Luther King.' "

Decades of denial passed. When the Monson Motor Lodge was torn down in 2003 to make room for a new Hilton, Nolan and other preservationists argued for saving it. An official repeatedly insisted the site had no historical significance, but at last they were able to preserve the steps where King was cuffed.

Attitudes began to change in 2007, Nolan said. Young returned to St. Augustine to show a documentary he had made about all the upheaval there. It drew a crowd, many of them young people who didn't know the story.

"People came out of it with tears in their eyes," Nolan said. After that the city named the spot where Young was beaten "Andrew Young Crossing," and a new effort began to post signs at some of the places where the protests occurred.

This week, on the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act becoming law, Nolan said, the city's newest history-related tourist attraction will be opened to the public — a civil rights museum. It drew no financial support from the city, but enough private donors contributed to get it started. Its location is nicely ironic: the eight-room building that once housed Hayling's dental practice.

Hayling will be there. The change in attitude has led to the once-reviled dentist being showered with accolades. In May he was inducted into the state's Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

But he sees very little progress in the city he fought so hard to change. Now instead of one black policeman, there are none. There are no African-American officeholders. The St. Augustine Record recently ran a series of stories on what happened 50 years ago, and some online commenters complained that the newspaper should stop dragging up awful memories.

But as for the Civil Rights Act? That was a success by the only measure that counts, Hayling said.

"Now I can get in my car … and drive to St. Augustine, and along the way I can go into a restaurant or a gas station and use the bathroom," he said. "And when I get to St. Augustine, I can at least go in and have a hamburger and a Coke."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.