How Florida’s 1st Black dentist became ‘father’ of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed segregation

Emmanuel Kwarteng September 01, 2022
Robert Hayling. Image via YouTube

A series of civil rights demonstrations known as the St. Augustine Movement took place in St. Augustine, Florida, between 1963 and 1964. Local chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Youth Council served as leaders. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was influenced by the Movement.

Florida’s first Black dentist and civil rights pioneer Dr Robert Hayling was the man behind the St. Augustine Movement. The protesters were given plea agreements but turned them down on July 18, 1963, when a sit-in demonstration at a nearby Woolworth’s lunch counter resulted in the arrest and detention of 16 young Black protesters and seven minors. 

The “St. Augustine Four” were four of the young people who were detained: JoeAnn Anderson, Audrey Nell Edwards, Willie Carl Singleton, and Samuel White. They spent six months at a reform school. Local authorities freed them early in January 1964 when Jackie Robinson, the NAACP, and the Pittsburgh Courier made their case public.

Hayling, a native of Tallahassee, served as an Air Force officer before being elected as Florida’s first Black dentist to the American Dental Association. He joined the local chapter of the NAACP in 1960.

The local chapter was expanding under his direction and started to apply pressure on the authorities to end racial segregation in the city. In 1963, when St. Augustine was planning for its 400th anniversary, there was a chance to protest. Then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was asked by the NAACP in a letter to postpone his trip to St. Augustine in March 1963, where he was scheduled to dedicate a Spanish landmark.

The effort was effective in getting vice president Lyndon to speak in front of a mixed-race crowd in St. Augustine, but it had no impact on the nation’s general Jim Crow legislation. Hayling thought that the NAACP campaign’s lack of a direct action element was a crucial flaw. He established an NAACP Youth Council (NYC) that took part in nonviolent direct action, such as swim-ins at the neighborhood’s segregated pools.

Hayling, who was then atypical among civil rights activists, supported using weapons in self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

“I and the others have armed. We will shoot first and answer questions later. We are not going to die like Medgar Evers”, Hayling said publicly in June 1963.

Hayling and three other NAACP activists—Clyde Jenkins, James Jackson, and James Hauser—were taken hostage and attacked by the KKK in September 1963. The four were saved by Florida Highway Patrol officers, and St. Johns County Sheriff officers detained a Klansman in connection with the assault but later dropped the charges.

Hayling was found guilty of assaulting KKK members. Following that incident, Hayling started advocating for Black self-defense, and as a result of his stance, national NAACP authorities removed him from his position as head of the Youth Council.

When Hayling and other activists started holding civil rights demonstrations in the spring of 1964, they appealed to Dr. Martin Luther King and the SCLC for assistance. Protesters marched from May to June of that year, and white supremacists violently attacked them. In the meantime, hundreds of protesters were detained and imprisoned.

Rev. Charles Kenzie Steele actually introduced Hayling to King during a convention in Orlando; shortly after, Hayling was elected president of King’s Florida branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the spring of 1964, he extended an invitation to King to visit St. Augustine, which had been selected as the scene of the struggle to compel the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s enactment.

King was detained on June 11, 1964, at the whites-only Monson Motor Lodge Hotel and Restaurant, which had grown to be a focal point of the protests. King had traveled to St. Augustine to support the demonstrations.

The St. Johns County grand jury asked SCLC to quit for a 30-day cooling-off period on June 18, 1964, but King and Hayling refused the proposal. The Monson Motor Lodge’s swimming pool was the scene of protests by Black and White people on the same day. James Brock, the hotel manager, reacted by pouring acid into the swimming pool in an effort to burn the demonstrators. The protesters were detained by police as they leave the pool.

Florida Governor C. Farris Bryant authorized the formation of a biracial group to revive interethnic interaction in St. Augustine on June 30, 1964. The day before President Lyndon B. Johnson – 36th US President following President Kennedy’s assassination – signed the Civil Rights Act into law, which outlawed racial segregation in places of public accommodation like the Monson Motor Lodge, SCLC officials left St. Augustine on July 1, 1964.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 1, 2022


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