Ambassador Andrew Young, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and my dad, Dr. Robert B. Hayling (photo by Frank Murray)
I always remember that I was not supposed to be born.
When my mom was pregnant with me, the Ku Klux Klan decided to teach our family a lesson. My father, Dr. Robert B. Hayling aka “that damned negro dentist,” was at an organizing meeting at his office. Carloads of Klansmen drove up to our small house late in the dark, St. Augustine Florida night. After pausing to yell insults and take aim, they shot up our house. My sisters Robin and Tamara still remember the sounds of gunshots and splintering wood. The smell of gunpowder. And the sight of our beloved family dog, who had run to the front door protectively, dying in a pool of her own blood.
This was the birth story I heard over and over. My mother told it to me. My father told it to me. Not to scare me, but to remind me that nothing is promised and that freedom is never free.
We talk a lot these days about terrorism, about people who seek to limit other people’s freedom by instilling fear through despicable acts of violence. The Ku Klux Klan specializes in that type of terror. And in the South, in the 1960s, it took a crazy type of activist to stand up to that terrorism. My dad was such a man.
He snuck into Klan rallies. He took pictures of the license plates on the parked cars to prove the truth everyone knew but wouldn’t acknowledge: that many of the city’s leaders pulled down municipal salaries by day and donned white robes at night. He invited college students to come to Florida not for a beach break, but to participate in civil disobedience. He was arrested and beaten, but still he fought.
The very public, brutal struggles of St. Augustine’s civil rights activists have been credited by many with tipping the scales toward passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its passage was not enough to make St. Augustine safe for us and not long afterwards our family left town — refugees from that particular brand of terror.
Decades later something amazing happened: the residents of St. Augustine fought to acknowledge and memorialize the city’s violent history. Those who preferred to sweep the ugliness under the rug were outnumbered by those who insisted that commemorating the struggle is almost as important as having fought in the first place. There is a Freedom Trail in St. Augustine, with historical markers at the homes of the everyday people who were heroes. There is a monument in the city square honoring the Foot Soldiers of the civil rights movement. And city leaders understand that the re-telling of history is the evidence of progress and the impetus to do better.
Our family paid a high price for the movement, but I thank the citizen activists of St. Augustine Florida who years later welcomed my father back and honored his accomplishments. It meant the world that he was seen and his sacrifices not forgotten.
My dad passed away last week. I’ll miss him every day. But I know he died feeling the arc of the universe bending towards justice.
Originally published in Medium, December 30, 2015.
On September 24, 2016, the city of St. Augustine, Florida dedicated Dr. Robert B. Hayling Freedom Park commemorating my dad and the movement he led for truth and peace.