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Florida Dental Association honors civil rights leader

August 06, 2015

By Michelle Manchir

Marking history: Dr. Hayling stands in front of the July 2, 2014 opening of the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum in St. Augustine on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act signing. The building is Dr. Hayling's former dental office. He stands with David Nolan, left, an author and historian and Dr. David Colburn, right, a historian and author. Courtesy of Michelle Hearn, Museum of Florida History
Orlando, Fla. — Dr. Robert Hayling went to dental school during a time when schools and lunch counters were segregated.

He recalls the day segregationists caused windows to blow out of his college dormitory because they'd bombed the nearby home of his dental law instructor, Z. Alexander Looby, at Meharry Medical College. Mr. Looby also happened to be an attorney fighting for desegragation of schools in Nashville.

Dr. Hayling had to move his family out of St. Augustine, Fla., after Ku Klux Klan members shot into his home one night, killing his family dog but missing his pregnant wife, and he endured an arrest and severe beating at their hands because of his involvement with the NAACP.

For his dedication to civil rights and dentistry, the Florida Dental Association in June honored Dr. Hayling, now 85, with a Special Recognition Award.

"He is a true leader and pioneer in his dedication to serving his country, dentistry and the Civil Rights Movement," said Dr. Ralph Attanasi, president of the FDA.

Dr. Hayling's Air Force photo courtesy of ACCORD Civil Rights Museum
Dr. Hayling, sometimes called the "father" of St. Augustine's civil rights movement, was a key figure in organizing peaceful protests supporting integration in the northeastern Florida city, which became a pivotal site during the movement.

With his role as a youth advisor with the NAACP, Dr. Hayling was influential in bringing Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters to St. Augustine in 1964, where they led marches and protests that gained national attention. Later that year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

But the progress didn't come without painful consequences for Dr. Hayling and others. In addition to threats and beatings, he lost some patients at his integrated dental office when word spread that he was supporting integration.

I was "punished for being an outspoken, nonconformist black guy," Dr. Hayling recalled.

After Klan members fired shots at his home, he moved his family out of St. Augustine but continued to work there, in part because of an obligation to the state, which helped him pay for his dental education. He'd always wanted to be a dentist, he said, in part because of his close relationship with his dentist as a boy in Tallahassee.
Before dentistry and serving as an adult advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, Dr. Hayling in 1951 graduated from Florida A&M University and enlisted in the Air Force. He attended Air Force Officer's Candidate School and spent four years in medical laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

He rose to the rank of First Lieutenant before being honorably discharged and then earning his degree from Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville, according to Dr. Hayling.

Speaking out: Andrew Young, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Robert Hayling, far right, sit at a press conference in St. Augustine in 1964. Photo by Frank Murray/Courtesy of ACCORD Civil Rights Museum
By 1966, he moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he was able to continue practicing dentistry. He became the first African American in Florida to become a full member of the FDA, ADA and his district dental association.

"I enjoyed every minute of it," Dr. Hayling said of practicing dentistry. "It provided a good life for my wife and family."

While now retired and living in Lauderhill, Fla., Dr. Hayling remains involved in community organizing and historical preservation efforts.  He works to support the nonprofit civil rights commemorative group, the Anniversary to Commemorate the Civil Rights Demonstrations, Inc. (ACCORD) Freedom Trail, a series of thirty-one historical markers identifying locations and sharing information regarding significant events in St. Augustine presented by the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

His former practice in St. Augustine is now a civil rights museum, and the street where he lived there is now named "Dr. Robert B. Hayling Place."

In recent decades, many groups have honored Dr. Hayling's important contributions to civil rights. In 2000, he received a Certificate of Recognition from Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, "in recognition of (his) service during the period of the Cold War in promoting peace and stability for this Nation."

In 2011, he was honored with the City of St. Augustine's "de Aviles Award," the second highest honor given to its citizenry, and in 2013, he was given the city's "Order of La Florida Award," its highest and most prestigious award. Then-Mayor Joe Boles lauded Dr. Hayling's sacrifices and his "achievements, which have enriched our city."

In  2014, Gov. Rick Scott inducted Dr. Hayling into the 2014 Class of the Florida State Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

When asked about his contributions to the civil rights movement, Dr. Hayling said in an interview with ADA News, "I don't think that I'm any kind of martyr." Rather, he recalled that, when he returned to Florida after dental school without even a traffic ticket to his name and found that he still didn't "qualify for full citizenship under the law," it was his duty to fight for those rights for himself and on behalf of other black citizens. "I was determined," he said.