JACKSONVILLE, Fla — August 27th marks 60 years since “Ax Handle Saturday,” a brutal racist attack on a peaceful lunch counter-protest in downtown Jacksonville.
One of the blacks attacked by the white mob that day, Rodney Hurst who was president of the youth council of Jacksonville’s NAACP at the time.
Action News Jax Anchor Tenikka Hughes spoke to Hurst about that dark day in Jacksonville’s history and the reckoning he says our city still needs to have.
In the 1950s and 1960′s in America, racism and segregation held a stronghold across the South, including Jacksonville.
Hurst said, “Then we had the visible insulting signs over two water fountains that said ‘colored’ and ‘white.’ And when you would go to a governmental agency, there would be a place where ‘colored’ would sit and where ‘whites’ would sit.” Hurst continued, “When you would go into a store, there would be four restrooms, ‘colored men’, ‘colored women’, ‘white men’, ‘white women.’”
Hurst was one of the young activists in the River City fighting to change that. Using a tactic first deployed at a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, Hurst ---who was then president of the Youth Council of the Jacksonville NAACP ---helped to lead some peaceful sit-in protests at lunch counters in downtown Jacksonville.
“If these stores wanted to continue to be profitable off of racism, we wanted to make sure that it would cost them.” Hurst said, “So we would sit an hour or two beyond the regular lunchtime. And when we would leave, we would be hit stuck with pens, hit, whatever, because this was a confrontation to southern white comfort zones in a Jacksonville, Florida.”
On Saturday, August 27th, 1960, a peaceful sit-in at W.T. Grant’s off Main Street near Hemming Park took a horrific turn.
Remembering that day Hurst said, “The day of ax handle Saturday, Mr. Pearson got a call that white men in Confederate uniforms were passing out free ax handles. There was a station wagon at the corner of Hogan and Duval Street that had bunches of ax handles, some were in the bushes by Hemming Park and there was a sign that said ‘Free Ax Handles.’ So they were giving out free ax handles. We sat in at Grants on that Saturday at the corner of Adams and Main street. When we came out of the store, running down Adams Street, were a group of 200 whites with ax handles and baseball bats. And even though we were the target, targets of their violence, they were hitting any black person downtown with ax handles and baseball bats---and none of this was covered by local media at the time.”
One of the rare images captured that day, a bloodied and battered Charlie Griffin. A student who Hurst says happened to be downtown shopping when the attack, believed to have been organized by Ku Klux Klan, erupted.
Hurst said, “The stores were locking doors and if you were inside, you stayed inside. If you were outside, you could not get in. We tried to shelter the black females who were sitting in with us as much as we could and push them back into the stores. And then we had no choice, but to run for our own safety. There were no policemen downtown during any of the days we were sitting in. There was no protect and serve during that time.”
Now 60 years later, memories from that day are imprinted in Hurst’s mind. But the attack only strengthened his resolve. He’s devoted his life to activism, education, and making sure the story of “Ax Handle Saturday” is a part of Jacksonville and American history.
“There is no formula to tell anybody how they should fight racism and how they should change racism. But for me, doing nothing is not an option,” Hurst said.
Hurst believes the River City still has work to do when it comes to overcoming racism and building a future with equality, respect, and inclusion.
Hurst said, “Jacksonville is still a work in progress. It has not made progress because Jacksonville likes to do one or two things and then sit back and say, wow, look what I’ve done while the rest of the world passes it by, so we’ll see with this consciousness today about social justice with these commemorations about civil rights going on this year and next year and other years to come, we’ll see how Jacksonville reacts to it.”
This year’s virtual commemoration for “Ax Handle Saturday” was held in the former Hemming Park. A statue honoring Confederate soldiers was removed from the park and it’s been renamed after a black man---James Weldon Johnson--- a Jacksonville native, civil rights activist, poet, songwriter, educator, and attorney. Johnson also wrote, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”