- Associated Press - Saturday, June 7, 2014

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) - When Robert B. Hayling first got to St. Augustine, he’d ride around the pretty tourist town in a red Volkswagen convertible, its white top down, his boxer dog leaning its head into the salty breeze.

It was the early 1960s, and Hayling, a Tallahassee native and son of a Florida A&M; professor, was young and confident, a black man making a mark on a city where it was hard for a man who looked like him to get ahead. He was a dentist with a growing family and a thriving, integrated practice. He was a retired Air Force first lieutenant used to being looked up to, by men both black and white.

Within five years, though, he’d be gone from this town.

His family in danger. His practice ruined. And his boxer long dead from the barrage of bullets fired, high and low, into the house where his children and pregnant wife went about their routine one night.

As the civil rights struggle made headlines around the country, he moved to act in St. Augustine. He volunteered to be adviser to the local NAACP’s youth council, supporting and encouraging the demonstrators who eventually attracted media attention and national figures - including Martin Luther King Jr. - to St. Augustine in the months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Most of the demonstrators were young, far younger than Hayling, who was in his 30s.

They looked up to the charismatic dentist. They still do, said Purcell Conway, once one of the teenage activists: “Here’s a man who gave up everything. He lost everything. When it came to his wealth, his status, he lost it.”

Maude Burroughs Jackson, a college student drawn into the movement, compared him to the pre-eminent civil-rights leader of the time. “There was something about Dr. King that made you feel like everything is going to be all right, there’s nothing to fear. That’s the same way with Dr. Hayling,” she said.

David Nolan, a St. Augustine historian, said the movement needed a strong-willed outsider to lead it. Hayling was a natural candidate.

“Frankly they needed someone who hadn’t been here all the time, who had not made his arrangements with the white community, who was not beholden to them,” he said. “It took somebody like that, somebody with that kind of dignity and professional background, with the fact that he had grown up at Florida A&M; black colleges then were sort of the utopia in the midst of Jim Crow.”

Then there was this: “He was not going to be scared,” Nolan said.

Hayling encountered resistance, of course. Some came from blacks in St. Augustine, who thought it best to not push too hard, too quickly. And much came from whites in St. Augustine and beyond, outraged that the activists challenged the status quo. White opposition came from racists such as the Ku Klux Klan, but also from many in the city’s power structure, which ignored and opposed the activists at almost every turn.

Time, though, has a way, sometimes, of smoothing out disputes.

In 2003, the City Commission agreed to rename Scott Street, where he lived, to Dr. R.B. Hayling Place.

Last year, St. Augustine gave him the city’s highest honor, the Order of La Florida. He was the first black so honored.

Story Continues →