Freedom Fighters' criminal records expunged by Florida cabinet

12/09/10 Janelle Irwin
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This morning in Tallahassee, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency gave freedom back to activists known as the “Freedom Fighters”. The unanimous decision to expunge their criminal records was met with excited applause.

Presiding over his last Clemency meeting, Governor Charlie Crist moved to expunge criminal charges and arrest records of the “Freedom Fighters” from St. Augustine in 1963 and 1964.

"Be it resolved by the Governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, do hereby recommend that the appropriate governmental entities immediately act to expunge any and all arrests and conviction records for which the related charges or convictions were dismissed or reversed by court order or for which the subjects were released without prosecution."

The other board members, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson, had no objections.

"So moved. Is there a second? All in favor please signify by saying 'aye.' Same, like sign for no? Show it unanimously passed. Congratulations and thank you very much."

After nearly 50 years of waiting, activists who helped lay the ground work for such milestones as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were publicly recognized for their courage and apologized to for the injustices they suffered.

"The Governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, express their profound regret for Florida's role in sanctioning the injustices perpetrated upon the courageous African American citizens of St. Augustine, St. John's County, Florida who, along with many others, were known as the 'Freedom Fighters' and who participated in the historic Civil Rights Events that took place in that city during the years 1963 and 1964."

Among those both honored and exonerated today was Dr. Robert Hayling, a retired dentist and prominent leader in the St. Augustine civil rights movement. In the wake of Wednesday’s commemoration of the bill creating the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame, an emotional Hayling took the podium to express his gratitude for this occasion.

"This is an honor we did not anticipate. All of my constituents and friends, neighbors and all from St. Augustine are here to help me celebrate. Thank you so much."

During 1963 and 1964, many African-American citizens of St. Augustine were arrested, incarcerated and mistreated for their efforts to gain equality in the community. Today’s historic resolution charged the Florida Board of Executive Clemency with expunging all charges related to the civil rights movement of that time. Governor Crist says the “Freedom Fighters” who carry the weight of a criminal record now have a clean slate.

"These courageous individuals who were arrested and or incarcerated in St. Augustine, St. John's County Florida during the years '63 and '64, for their role in support of Florida's Civil Rights movement still have arrest records on file today. Even though the laws permitting such injustices have been repealed. It is important that the Florida Board of Executive Clemency acknowledge the injustices meted out to the 'Freedom Fighters' who bravely demonstrated time and time again against the shameful practices which were dictated by segregationist policies of the day."

In another gesture, the resolution will bar the criminal records from review. But the records will be archived as historical documents.

"To forever remove such records for any future review other than for historical documentation and duly authorize the transfer of such records to the Florida state archives to be made available to historical review or reference, and to forever serve as a living and viable testament to their courage, ideals, and bravery during these fateful months in 1963 and 1964."

Today, with one vote, a group of mostly retired activists not only shed their criminal records, they became heroes of Florida’s history.

Previous WMNF coverage of Freedom Fighters

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