Hayling was a champion in early civil rights movement
By Marquavia Smith
When Robert Hayling’s friends describe him as a “standard bearer” for civil rights, they aren’t using the description loosely.
Consider that he was beaten for boldly attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting at the detriment of being beaten and having his knuckles broken; he also protested a segregated celebration in his adopted hometown St. Augustine that resulted in his home being shot up and his dog being shot to death.
Hayling died at the age of 86 last December, but his legacy lives on. Especially for what he did for Blacks as a civil rights activist.
A Tallahassee native, Hayling had such a reputation for his stance against injustices that he became known as the “father of the civil rights movement.” His activism led him to establish a St. Augustine chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, following the principles of Martin Luther King Jr.
Hayling also was advisor for the Youth Council of the NAACP.
“Once I heard of his passing, I knew we lost someone great,” said State representative Alan Williams. “His legacy and civil engagements in our communities is one that we can learn from.”
He left plenty of lessons. Take the time when St. Augustine was preparing for its 400th anniversary as the oldest city in the United States, using federal funds for the occasion. Blacks were excluded and Hayling took a stand against the event being segregated.
He paid violently for his actions, having shots fired at his home and barely missed hitting his pregnant wife. But his boxer dog didn’t escape the bullets.
He’d later have the encounter with the KKK that left him beaten and in pain.
“He is one of the standard bearers for leaders in our state,” said Williams. “What was most moving to me was that he said, ‘I wasn’t doing what I did to gain notoriety, or because it was popular, I just did it because it was right.’ ”
Hayling worked hard and long for civil rights, despite having a professional life as a dentist.
After he completed his undergrad studies at FAMU, he served in the Air Force and worked his way to a ranking of second lieutenant. After his time in the military, he continued his education in 1955 at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., where he earned a degree in dentistry.
He settled in St. Augustine in 1960 and started his dental practice. His office was the first in St. Augustine that didn’t have segregated waiting rooms.
Hayling moved to Cocoa Beach several years later to continue his career, but never relinquishing his fight for fairness to Blacks. He’d later move farther south, landing in Fort Lauderdale, where he died.
He was honored as a recipient of the de Aviles Award in 2011 and in 2013 he was honored by the Order of La Florida. Former senator Tony Hill created the Dr. Robert B. Hayling Award of Valor, an honor that goes to civil rights heroes.
Hayling also is a member of the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
“He was an icon in the state of Florida,” said Hill.
Hayling encountered many good and bad experiences, and lived to witness and enjoy the rewards of his victories.
“I am glad we were able to give him his roses while he was still alive,” said Williams. “To show him how much we appreciate him.”