On the same day President Trump is scheduled to give his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination at the big arena in Jacksonville, Florida, another group will meet in a nearby park where Klansmen in Confederate uniforms handed out ax handles for a racist rampage exactly 60 years before.
The permit for the Aug. 27 gathering at Hemming Park was secured by one of that murderous white mob’s targets on what became known as Ax Handle Saturday. Rodney Hurst was the 16-year-old president of the youth council of the NAACP back in 1960. He will be joined this year as in previous years by Alton Yates, who was then the group’s 23-year-old vice president.
“I got hit in the back of the head with an ax handle,” Yates told The Daily Beast of that day six decades ago. “If you’ve ever seen stars before, it’s unbelievable. It’s something a young person never expects to have happen to them.”
Yates survived, but three people are believed to have died as a result of the attack and as many as 100 were injured. Hurst says that an admitted FBI informant named Clarence Sears would tell him years later that the Ku Klux Klan had hoped to spark a race war in the city.
Two weeks before the mob’s attack, Hurst and Yates and several dozen other young people had begun daily sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in downtown Jacksonville. Hurst had been a member of the NAACP Youth Council for five years, having joined when he was just 11 at the suggestion of his eighth-grade American History teacher, Rutledge Pearson. Hurst had skipped ahead in school and he further proved to be a prodigy as a civil rights activist, becoming the group’s president at 15. He had been in that position for a year at the time of the first lunch counter sit-in.
“They called me the kid,” Hurst later told The Daily Beast.
Yates had recently returned to Jacksonville from serving in the Air Force, riding high-speed rocket sleds as a volunteer in the manned space flight program. He had been featured in an Ebony magazine article as “The GI Who Risked His Life 65 Times For Science.” He was still wearing his uniform when he stopped in to get a bite to eat at the start of a 1,400-mile drive home from his base in New Mexico. That made no difference when he stopped early on at a roadside place to get a bite to eat. The proprietor welcomed him with the N-word and told him to leave or he would be hanging from a tree. He went to a grocery store.
“I ate peanut butter and bread all the way to Jackson,” he recalled. “I could not use a rest room the whole way.”
Yates arrived ready to join the struggle for civil rights.
Upon entering the downtown Woolworth’s on Aug. 13, 1960, Hurst and Yates and the others in the group each made a purchase in another part of the store. They hereby established that Woolworth’s would take their money in one department before testing what would happen at the lunch counter. They made sure to have some added cash. They jokingly imagined a newspaper headline that might otherwise appear in the highly unlikely event they were served:
“Youth Council Members Arrested, Not For Sitting In, But For Not Having Money to Pay For Food They Ordered.”
They understood that would not be a worry the moment they sat down.
“The waitress said, ‘You can’t sit there, the colored counter is at the back of the store. This is for white people,” Hurst recalled. “We said, “We’re just here to be served. We’re shoppers. We’re here to be served.”
The waitress sought out the manager, James Word. He came over.
“He said, ‘You know, this is the white person counter,’” Hurst remembered. “We said, ‘That’s fine but we’re still here.’”
The manager closed the counter. Hurst and Yates and the others stayed put. They had decided beforehand to remain through the lunch period lest the counter just reopened after they left.
A group of whites formed behind them, growing in number and fury, spewing virulent racial epithets.
Hurst had a Brownie camera, and somebody used it to take a picture. He can be seen sitting erect, looking impossibly young and brave.
When the group finally rose and moved to leave, they were kicked and stuck with pins. A white man with a walking stick had sharpened it at the end and poked them with it. A woman blocked Hurst’s way and ground her heel into his toe.
“A heel to your toe with deliberation really hurts,” Hurst later said.
The group continued to stage the daily sit-ins at various locales over the next two weeks. They would meet beforehand at a youth center made available by a local church and sing such songs as “We Shall Overcome.” They would hold hands and end with a prayer and some words to send themselves back into the struggle.
“Together we go up, together we stay up!”
On the morning of Aug. 27, Pearson got word of alarming developments in Hemming Park, across from Woolworths. The park was named after Charles Hemming, who had erected a memorial there to Florida’s Confederate soldiers in 1898. The memorial featured a representative figure standing atop a 62-foot granite column at the park’s center.
Pearson saw white men wearing similar Confederate uniforms as he drove past. They were carrying ax handles on which they had affixed Confederate battle flags. A sign was posted next to a station wagon.
“Free ax handles.”
Pearson reported back to the group. They held hands and sang and prayed as always. The difference was that this time Hurst took a vote on whether they should go ahead with a sit-in. The vote was unanimous in the affirmative. And 34 of them set off.
“Our determination and courage overcame our healthy fear,” Hurst would later write in a book titled It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke.
The group was marching downtown when the white mob spotted them and gave chase. Their pursuers were armed with baseball bats as well as ax handles.
“Swinging at anyone black downtown and swinging at any of the whites who tried to defend anyone black. ”
— Rodney Hurst
Yates and five of the others headed into Woolworth’s directly across from the park. They began to stage a sit-in that was cut short when some of the mob burst in. Yates and the others escaped out a side door, but he was struck in the head before they reached the sanctuary of the church’s youth center.
Hurst and the rest had continued three blocks to start a sit-in at the W.T. Grant store. They had no sooner entered than the management closed the place and shut off the lights. They emerged to see a white mob charging at them.
“Swinging at anyone black downtown and swinging at any of the whites who tried to defend anyone black,” Hurst recalled.
“Running away from getting hit,” he later said. “You did not know if there was someone else around the corner. You were running away from the danger you saw in front of you.”
The stores up and down the street locked their doors.
“If you were in, you couldn’t get out, and if you were outside, you couldn’t get in for safety,” Hurst said.
The nearly complete absence of cops led Hurst to suspect both the police department and the county sheriff’s office knew what was coming. Yates saw a single cop.
“There was one police officer who tried to get help. He called for help, but nothing happened until all hell broke loose,” Yates recalled.
The police only responded after a number of black people less resolutely non-violent than the youth council stepped in. Two tall and beefy cops arrived at the church youth center where Hurst and the others in the group had also sought sanctuary. The cops were confronted by the pastor, who stood maybe 5-foot-5.
“I remember him looking up to the county patrolmen, saying, ‘You will not set foot on church property,’” Hurst said. “They said, “All we want is to go in and talk to them.’ He said, ‘No, you will not talk to anybody today…’ And they left.”
After the first sit-in, Hurst had been fired from his job as a dishwasher at Cohen’s department store.
“We don’t need you anymore,’ is what they actually said,” Hurst recalled.
Hurst went on to serve in the Air Force and to write a book about Ax Handle Saturday. He remained a civil rights activist and there was much to do in Jacksonville. In response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that school segregation was unconstitutional, the city had named a high school after Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The school was not renamed until 2013.
“That rocked the conscience of America unlike anything else that’s happened.”
— Rodney Hurst, Ax Handle Saturday survivor
Hurst also became a black historian. He saw last month’s murder of George Floyd as part of a horrific continuum stretching back to slavery days. What made this killing different was the video showing Floyd die while the cop pressing a knee to his neck remained so impassive and deaf to the cries of “Mama! Mama!” along with the too familiar, ‘I can’t breathe.”
“That rocked the conscience of America unlike anything else that’s happened,” Hurst said.
On Thursday came word that President Trump had chosen Jacksonville as the site of the Republican national convention and would deliver his acceptance speech on what happened to be the anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday.
The announcement explained to Hurst why Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry had the Confederate memorial in Hemming Park dismantled the day before. Hurst thinks Curry must have been seeking to preempt some of the fuss about the date and dampen in advance any criticism over this ebullience that Trump had chosen Jacksonville.
All that will remain of the monument will be a bare column stripped of statue and plaques when Hurst and Yates plan to gather for the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday. Hurst emphasizes that they will be observing social distancing and figure on providing masks to any who arrive without one. He and Yates are horrified that Trump will be packing his supporters into the arena on that same day in the midst of a pandemic when COVID-19 infections in Florida will likely still be rising.
“Which means he really doesn’t care about his base as he has those people kneeling at his throne,” Hurst said. “No empathy. No compassion. No sensitivity.”
The feeling of being hit in the back of a head with an ax handle just across from the park remains a vivid memory for Yates.
“It’s an experience in order for change to take place,” he said on Friday. “And that change was very slow in coming. I certainly thought we would be much further along.”
Yates, who went on to serve in federal and city government and to become a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, added, “I thought as a result of the demonstrations of the 1960s that America would learn its lesson, that people would learn how to live together in peace and harmony, that we wouldn’t have to contend with the kind of rampant discrimination and prejudice that we are faced with today.”
He said that although the death of George Floyd was a shocking reminder of how far we have to come, he took hope in the diversity of the protesters across America.
“When we were protesting in the 1960s, we had one white student who demonstrated with us, and that was a rarity,” he said. “But today the demonstrators are people from all walks of life, all races, all religions and the ages go from the very young to the elderly people. The demonstrators look like America and that’s important. As a result of that, I think you will begin to see change happen as never before.”