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The Freedom Struggle in St. Augustine, Florida: Recognizing the Foot Soldiers

posted Jun 12, 2011, 6:35 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated Jun 13, 2011, 10:54 AM ]
By Barbara H. Chasin

    In late April I visited a friend in St. Augustine, Florida.  She and some other activist friends told me about the desegregation fight in that city in the 1960s that involved Martin Luther King and Dorothy Cotton along with many others.  In May of this year, the city dedicated a statue to the “ordinary foot soldiers” of the civil rights movement there.  I thought Ithaca area readers might find the following information about St. Augustine’s struggle of interest.

    St. Augustine Florida is the oldest city in the United States.  From the city’s founding, people of African descent have played an important role in the city’s history.  In 1738, for example, Fort Mose, a free black town was recognized by the then Spanish rulers of the city.  Slaves from the north of Florida escaped to this city to gain freedom.  Many years later the struggle for freedom continued in St. Augustine and was met by violence including the bombings of several homes.

    Dr. Robert B. Hayling, a local African-American dentist led the fight against segregation, teaching the methods of non-violence to local youth.  He organized wade-ins at segregated swimming pools and sit-ins at segregated eating places.  These actions were illegal and he was arrested many times.  His own office was the first in the city to have non-segregated waiting and examining rooms.  Paying a price for his actions, Dr. Hayling was threatened with death, drive-by shooters barely missed his pregnant wife and killed his dog.  He was kidnapped and severely beaten by the KKK, losing eleven teeth.  The KKK impaired his ability to practice dentistry by maiming his right hand.

Dr. Robert Hayling (right) with Dr. King and Atlanta mayor (1982-1990) Andrew Young.

    In 1964, Martin Luther king, Jr. came to St. Augustine on several occasions and was arrested for “unlawful assembly” after picketing segregated businesses. His fingerprint card has recently been put on display at a local museum part of a civil rights exhibit.

Dr. Martin Luther King in St. Augustine jail

    Ithaca’s own Dorothy Cotton was attacked, along with African-American children she was escorting to a local beach. Of that incident she remembered, "I took some licks to the side of my head, one girl got her nose broken."

    Progressive activists in St. Augustine are aware of the role that recognized leaders of the moment played in the Civil Rights movement and the great risks they took. They are also aware, however, of the many less recognized ordinary people who refused to play the subordinate roles a racist system had assigned to them. St. Augustine resident Barbara Vickers, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, created an organization to honor these people: The Foot Soldiers. Raising $70,000, the project commissioned a sculpture meant to represent the diverse participants in the local struggle. There are unnamed figures of a teenage African-American girl, a white college student, and an older black woman and man. In a pouring rain on May 14
th, 2011 amidst reminiscences from a local Freedom Rider the sculpture was unveiled, an important addition to the history of this historic city.

St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument Unveiling