Tourists and native Floridians alike have flocked to the beautiful city of St. Augustine thanks in no small part to Henry Flagler, who took it upon himself to create a city for the wealthy. During the 1920s, St. Augustine saw wealth like no other coming in and out of the town. But when the Great Depression hit, it created an exaggerated economic division between the poor and the rich.
As the middle class evaporated, the rich continued to move into the city to be around other wealthy families, and the poor continued to move to the outskirts. Cheap labor kept the hub of St. Augustine running, but it created severe inequality among its residents. This divide is a large part of what led to creating the civil rights movement in St. Augustine.
Dr. Robert B. Hayling was many things. He served as an officer in the Air force and later became the first black dentist to be elected to the American Dental Association. In addition to those accomplishments, many consider him the father of the civil rights movement in St. Augustine.
In 1960 Dr. Hayling set up shop in St. Augustine, and before long, he joined the local NAACP. He took part in a protest on the city’s 400th anniversary, which caught the United States vice president’s attention. Lyndon B. Johnson came to St. Augustine and delivered a speech to an integrated crowd, but no real changes occurred. Dr. Hayling knew they needed to take more direct action, so he created an NAACP youth council. He taught them nonviolent protesting methods such as swimming in an all-white swimming pool or walking on the beach’s all-white section. These protests encouraged peaceful but noticeable resistance to the segregated system.
One nonviolent protest brought much more attention than the others. On July 18, 1963, 23 young protesters were arrested while sitting down to eat lunch in an all-white diner. Seven of the imprisoned protesters were juveniles under 18, and four of these children were under the age of 10. These children were called the St. Augustine 4, and they were sent off to reform schools to change their behaviors. A full six months after the incident, they were the only ones still being punished for the protest. Their case was called an egregious injustice by the media, and the governor agreed. In January of 1964, the four children were taken out of the reform school and returned to their parents.
The city of St. Augustine failed to comply with the existing federal civil rights legislation and did not implement the changes brought on by Brown v. Board of Education. The verdict in this landmark U.S. Supreme Court case ruled that U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional. Dr. Hayling stepped in and held protests, lobbying for federal funding suspension until the changes were implemented. In response, the KKK openly attacked Black citizens in broad daylight. Dr. Hayling believed in nonviolent protests, but he also thought that he and others should be armed. He is quoted saying, “ I and others have armed. We will shoot first and ask questions later.” When the Klan would ride into black neighborhoods to attack innocent people, Hayling and others drove them off by shooting their guns.
One night in September of 1963, the Klan abducted Dr. Hayling and three of his colleagues. They were taken to the outskirts of town where over a hundred Klansmen waited for them. The four men were beaten, kicked, and hit with chains, whips, and wooden clubs. The men would have been killed if not for the highway patrol. They were rescued, and the officers arrested four white men at the scene. Dr. Hayling thought for once there would be justice, but instead, he and his colleagues who were unarmed were charged with assault. The four Klansmen were released shortly after their arrest, and charges were dropped. Hayling and the three other men were convicted of assault.
In October of that same year, a car filled with KKK members rode through the black community and started shooting at houses. The community fired back, and someone managed to hit a Klansman. Concerned with the escalating violence, the NAACP removed Hayling from the youth council, which led him and others to contact the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and asked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for help.
With Dr. King’s help, the movement gained national attention. The SCLC and Dr. Hayling enlisted an army of protesters from around the county during spring break to come to St. Augustine’s beaches and protest in the all-white sections. Both Black and white protesters participated in this protest. Dozens were arrested, including the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts.
Dr. King used the momentum to stage an event at the Monson Motor Lodge, an all-white hotel in St. Augustine. He and a group of black men were going to hold a sit-in at the lodge restaurant, but they were arrested and jailed before they could even enter. While in jail, Dr. King wrote to 17 black rabbis all over the country and asked them to come down and try to finish what he started at the Lodge restaurant. They complied, but they were detained, making it the largest amount of rabbis ever arrested at one time. The protests came to an explosive ending when a group of protesters jumped over the motor lodge fence and into the swimming pool. The owner’s response was to pour acid into the pool while they were swimming, and many of them were burned. This event was broadcast around the world as it was happening, which helped spread the news and created a national outcry for change.
Ten days later, the governor of Florida formed a committee to handle racial issues, primarily focusing on the city of St. Augustine. The next day President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, and Dr. King and his organization, the SCLC, left St. Augustine to continue their work elsewhere.
The black community continued to protest and fight for equality for years to come. Still, Dr. Hayling and Dr. King’s courageous actions are a large part of what led to St. Augustine’s thriving community that we see today.