Ax Handle Saturday speakers commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1960 peaceful sit-ins in Downtown Jacksonville that were met with violence.
Jacksonville civil rights leader Rodney L. Hurst Sr. used his closing remarks at the Aug. 27 Ax Handle Saturday commemoration to remind millennials that “visual vestiges” of racism, like colored lunch counters and water fountains, may be gone but the problem still exists.
“Believe me, there is still a war to fight,” Hurst said. “Racism is an undergirding evil that permeates the very fiber of this country, founded on a racist Christian ideal. If we are committed to meaningful race relations in Jacksonville and this country, we must have uncomfortable conversations about racism between white folks and black folks.”
Nearly 100 activists, guests, allies and community leaders gathered in James Weldon Johnson Park Downtown to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1960 attack on peaceful young black protesters at a Downtown lunch-counter demonstration organized by the Jacksonville Youth Council of the NAACP.
More than 200 white onlookers, and even police officers, used baseball bats, nightsticks and wooden ax handles near the park to beat and disperse the protesters who were speaking out against racial segregation, according to the Florida Historical Society.
The Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Center for Urban Education and Policy, and Leadership is for Everyone Inc. sponsored the commemoration in the former Hemming Park.
Hurst, the featured speaker, was the 16-year-old president of the Jacksonville Youth Council on Ax Handle Saturday.
He led peaceful sit-ins at “whites-only” lunch counters in the Woolworth and W.T. Grant department stores to protest racial segregation, according to the Florida Historical Society.
As the Aug. 27 event began, Hurst — who wrote a firsthand account of Ax Handle Saturday in his book “It was never about a hot dog and a Coke” in 2008 — told the in-person and virtual crowd that the series of lunch counter sit-ins two weeks before the attack is not “an urban legend” or “an urban myth.”
“Sit-in demonstrations were about we and us, not me and I. And it revolved around the togetherness of who we were, who we understood our legacy revolved around and we knew that there was a black face looking back at us in the mirror,” Hurst said.
Because of COVID-19 safety measures, the in-person commemoration was limited to 50 special guests and a small crowd, including the public and members of the media. It was live-streamed on social media.
George Curtis Cameron, former lead singer of The Temptations and The Spinners, performed.
Speaker Brenda Priestly Jacksonville, District 10 City Council member and Hurst’s niece, represents portions of Jacksonville’s racially diverse Northside and Westside neighborhoods.
She noted that Ax Handle Saturday was only six years after the U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling that the Jim Crow segregationist policy of “separate but equal” in schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Priestly Jackson said that promises of better city services for all made eight years later by Jacksonville leaders when the Duval County and city governments consolidated are still unmet.
The Council member said she sees “seven bridges” of unequal opportunity today: “Septic tanks that need to be removed; crumbling infrastructure; economic development not viable or visible in certain parts of our city; different educational outcomes and opportunities; job loss; economic anxieties experienced because of the pandemic recession; health disparities; and death of our neighbors because of COVID-19 and ongoing inequities.”
Northeast Florida is known for its seven bridges that cross the St. Johns River.
“So, today I ask that we commit to a more just Jacksonville. Not one separated by seven bridges of unequal opportunities, but one that will build the promises that those youth believed in when they put themselves in harm’s way,” Priestly Jackson said.
“We commit to believing that black lives matter and we show it with funding and resources for those of us often overlooked and forgotten. Together we can. We’re a bunch of strivers .”
The park’s importance
The backdrop of James Weldon Johnson Park across the street from City Hall became a more prominent focal point of the event in recent days.
Council voted 16-2 on Aug. 11 to rename the park after the “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” composer, a Jacksonville native. District 9 Council member Garrett Dennis proposed the bill. The song is considered “The Black National Anthem.”
The park was named for Charles Hemming since 1899, the year after he donated a monument and statue of a Confederate infantryman for the space.
City crews took the statue down in June, days before planned racial justice protests Downtown after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
Ebony Payne-English, an artist and the managing director of the Jacksonville nonprofit The Performers Academy, recited her poem Aug. 27 about Hemming Park’s history in Jacksonville race relations.
Hurst recounted the importance of the Bethel Baptist Institutional Church of Jacksonville’s role in fostering Johnson’s music and education.
“Today, we celebrate 120 years of ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ Today, we commemorate 60 years of Ax Handle Saturday and the 1960 sit-ins. Today we celebrate the changing of the name of this park from a Confederate, treasonous, anarchist to one of Jacksonville’s favorite native sons, James Weldon Johnson,” Hurst said.
Future civil rights conference
Leaders of the University of North Florida’s Center for Urban Education and Policy announced at the event that they are coordinating a civil rights conference in Jacksonville in August 2021.
Center Assistant Director of Urban Education and Community Initiatives Rudy F. Jamison Jr. said Aug. 27 that his team plans to form a steering committee to establish a civil rights museum in the city.