Today in Florida History: St. Augustine comes to grips with racist past.

  • 04
  • February
St. Augustine Florida

St. Augustine Florida

St. Augustine coming to grips with its segregationist past, and dark role in civil rights struggle

Racist tensions

Whites pursue blacks who protested St. Augustine’s segregation laws by swimming into the ocean at a segregated beach in 1964. Photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

St. Augustine is ultimately coming to grips with the civil rights conflict that took place in 1964, which likely persuaded the Senate to end the longest filibuster in its history and pass the landmark Civil Rights Act.

St. Augustine forced to reflect on its dark history

Craig Pittman, a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, profiles Dr. Robert Hayling, a black dentist who moved to the city in his 30s and launched a year-long series of protests toward the segregation laws that restricted blacks from eating in the same restaurants, utilizing the same restrooms, wading in the same public pools or lying on the same beaches as whites.

Hayling’s campaign brought the struggle to a boiling point in the city and became a beacon that drew in members of the racist Ku Klux Klan and civil rights agitators from across the nation.

They clashed and there was blood. ¬†Klansmen firebombed homes in black neighborhoods and brutally beat Hayling and other protestors. Martin Luther King was arrested on the steps of a motel as he tried to enter its restaurant. Whites chased blacks into the ocean as blacks “waded-in” on the sands of a segregated beach. During another wade-in at the swimming pool of the motel where Dr. King was arrested, a manager threw muriatic acid into the pool to force the protestors to leave.

St. Augustine has spent decades trying to forget the civil rights clashes. But a new museum and talk of marking locations of the most significant events suggest some of its residents might be ready to remember.

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