Duval County

Remembering JFK’s connection to Jacksonville, 60 years after his assassination

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — James Weldon Johnson Park in Downtown Jacksonville sits empty most days, but a forgotten reminder of the city’s past sits idly alone.


On a corner across from the library is a marker commemorating a speech made by former President John F. Kennedy on Oct. 18, 1960, at what was then Hemming Park.

Kennedy’s speech came just 3 weeks before the presidential election, where he narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, and little did anyone know at the time that Kennedy would be assassinated 3 years later on Nov. 22, 1963.

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Wednesday is 60 years since Kennedy was murdered.

“Think about it, where else would you memorize a recently assassinated president?,” said Dr. Alan Bliss, who is the executive director of the Jacksonville History Center, which has a black and white photo from that day of Kennedy waving from a convertible. “Other cities did a lot more to memorialize the late president. They named streets, highways, libraries, schools, bridges and airports after John F. Kennedy. None of that happened here in Jacksonville”

That is except for John F. Kennedy Drive, a small street tucked away in Northwest Jacksonville.

“People pass through the park when they are destined for a place. It’s only when you have a moment to reflect you look at this thing,” said Bliss about the marker.

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The speech came less than two months after Ax Handle Saturday when a mob of white men used ax handles and baseball bats to attack black protesters, who were holding sit-ins opposing racial segregation.

“The Kennedy speech didn’t happen here because it was the scene of Axe Handle Saturday,” said Bliss. “In fact, I would say almost the opposite.”

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Kennedy won Duval County in the election but lost Florida.

According to the JFK Library, Kennedy’s speech in Jacksonville focused on international affairs, including Russia and Cuba, and he talked about his connection to Jacksonville.

“My older brother, who was in the United States Navy as a flyer, graduated from the Jacksonville Air Base in 1942,” said Kennedy. “My first sea duty was to take a motor torpedo boat from Rhode Island to the Hutchins Naval Base here in Jacksonville, where I stayed a month, so I am glad to be back in Jacksonville.”

Click here to read Kennedy’s full speech.

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