Ax Handle Saturday: Sixty Years Later

Saturday, August 27, 1960 was a fairly normal day in post-war America–for a while, anyway. The Olympics were going on in Rome, where a couple of world records were set in swimming. The day was not intended to mark a moment in history, but that is often how history works out. Summertime in Jacksonville is always hot, but it was about to get much hotter.

The 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday occurs during a summer largely defined by widespread protests over police brutality and systemic racism, protests of a size and scale unseen since the 1960s, if indeed ever in history. As a new generation of activists take to the streets, people like Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Jr. find themselves holding a sort of “O.G.” status within the movement. “Social media has escalated these murders and these instances of white American racism up to a national level,” he says, “So many folks got a chance, for the first time to see the police murder someone in living color, so obviously the response to what they say was always initially an emotional response. But it’s no different than the murders that we’ve seen over the years. The Black Lives Matter movement is just an extension of the Civil Rights Movement, which is just an extension of other movements prior to that.”

The sit-ins were organized by the local NAACP Youth Council, led by Hurst, then only 16, but sharp as a tack. That August, Hurst (who started school at just five years old) was only two months removed from graduating from Northwestern High. Though firmly centered in the present, he had already begun planning his future. Hurst received scholarship offers from a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), including Dillard, Hampton, and Morehouse. He ultimately decided to attend Edward Waters College, founded on the city’s northside in 1868.

The political implications of Hurst’s activist work made themselves apparent almost instantly: Mayor Haydon Burns, an arch-segregationist who’d tangled with Hurst that summer, threatened to withdraw city funding from the school if it permitted his entry. Having already approved his application, the faculty stood firm, and City Hall backed down. After making the Dean’s List as a freshman, Hurst’s education was abruptly halted when he was drafted to the U.S. Air Force. Despite possessing a 1-S student deferment, and being only 17 years old, he found himself heading to Vietnam. Hurst views that as a politically-motivated decision that may have had lethal consequences, had fate taken him in another direction.

Black people represented about 45 percent of the city’s population at the time, but their actual power was virtually nonexistent. “With segregation, back in the day, the only venues that we could use to get the word out were black churches,” he says. “The Sunday after Ax Handle Saturday, we had a huge meeting at St. Paul AME Church, which was on the corner of 13th and Myrtle. It was an in-person type dispersal of information. Today, people know when there’s going to be a demonstration. Our communication was snail-paced; we had to depend on word of mouth. We had to depend on the Black press, but they were mostly weekly. There was only so much they could do without that kind of daily exposure.”

“Understand that, from the protest movements of the 1950s and ‘60s, you had an emerging Black youth leadership that came out of the movement, as you have now,” says Hurst. “I met John Lewis and Marion Barry, who was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I met them and Diane Nash, and James Bevel, and a lot of civil rights leaders at the Saint Helena Islands, out from Beaufort, North Carolina, at a place called the Pen Center, which was one of the maybe two or three, at most, places where Blacks and whites could get together and talk about civil rights with some modicum of security. The issues are the same – the only difference is that now there is a medium to highlight it.”

This was not the first such action taken in the south. Ax Handle Saturday was only a month removed from the end of sit-ins at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, which began throughout the first week of February and continued into the summer. Those efforts bore fruit, as the lunch counter there was quietly desegregated on July 25. This gave hope to the kids in Jacksonville, who knew there was at least some chance of success. But the Greensboro cadre had strength in numbers – more than a thousand at some points – and they were also older.

Local activists had already conducted other lunch counter sit-ins on a smaller scale during the month, at places like Morrison’s Cafeteria. Those had come off without a hitch, but doing it at Woolworth’s presented a whole slew of additional complications. It was a national chain, one already associated with such efforts in the public mind. It was located at the center of downtown, where events would play out in full view of the community.

“Back in 1960, there was no networking, other than the fact that we were fighting the same enemy,” he says. “We did not check in with Atlanta and Nashville, Birmingham and Greensboro. From those first sit-ins, and as they spread around the country, we all decided that we would do something in our respective communities. All civil rights demonstrations are local.” Working with a few adult advisors, most notably teacher Rutledge Pearson and attorney Earl Johnson, the kids began to develop their strategy. “We had between 400 and 500 active members of the Youth Council,” Hurst recalls. “Our membership meetings every week, every Wednesday night, would probably total between 50 and 70 members.”

There were 84 seats at that white lunch counter at Woolworth’s, which took up a whole side of the store, on Monroe Street – Woolworth’s and J.C. Penney were the only occupants of the building. There was a common door where you could walk between them. They fronted Hogan Street; Duval Street and Monroe Street were at the sides. The only other building on that block was the Robert Meyer Hotel, which was at the rear, fronting back onto Julia Street.

The protest action was not limited to Woolworth’s, which commanded more attention due to its national profile and its connection to the earlier sit-ins. “There was Grant’s, Walgreens, McCrory’s, Kress, and a lunch counter in Cohen Bros., which was part of the St. James Building, which is where City Hall is now,” Hurst recalls. “At all of those stores, we always had enough students to cover every lunch counter. We had Youth Council members who were ready to sit in as the white customers got up and left.”

Jacksonville’s first sit-in took place at Woolworth’s on Saturday, August 13, and continued every day for the next two weeks, except for Sundays. “When we sat in on the first day, August 13, we had more than 100 Youth Council members there at the time,” says Hurst.

“We sat in at all of the lunch counters every day, from the 13th to the 27th,” Hurst says. “That white lunch counter was part of the comfort system for white people in the south. They were refuges, so they didn’t have to deal with Black folk. That reinforced who they were.” Protesters would begin by making some token purchase–a pencil, some candy, whatever–so they were recognized as customers before heading to the counters.

“We would get mail in every day at the NAACP office, and they would give you an overview, since many of these sit-ins were conducted by NAACP college chapters,” he says. “So we figured it was somewhere between 30 and 35 sit-ins after Greensboro. The difference was that those were college students.” By contrast, 95% of the demonstrators in Jacksonville were still in high school, so their efforts began during the summertime. Through consistency and repetition, momentum quickly developed, but so did resistance.

They expected some trouble. Activists were trained in nonviolent resistance. They learned how to keep their composure despite the provocations of the mob. That training proved essential for the kids at the counter; they somehow managed to keep their dignity despite being cursed at, spat on, having their hair pulled, even being hit. They knew that any physical response would be used as an excuse to escalate the attacks. Then, as now, any violence would provide the opposition with a propaganda victory, a chance to dismiss the legitimacy of the movement.

The group gathered first at Laura Street Presbyterian Church, then split into two groups. One group, numbering about 30, took Main Street over to the W.T. Grant store. The sit-in at Grant’s was fairly uneventful, at first: They sat down, the lunch counter was closed, and they left. By that point, counter-demonstrators had already begun to gather in Hemming Park. The lunch counter scene was ugly, but the worst was yet to come.

The park was mostly empty when the kids went in, but it was packed by the time they left. Word of their protest had spread, and upon exit they walked into a crowd of more than 200 white men, armed with melee weapons like baseball bats and the eponymous ax handles. These types of protest actions were often met with violent resistance, but this was new, different. They were grown men, and their victims were kids. They were outnumbered, by about seven to one, and most of them had never experienced anything like that before. There were only about 35 of them there; all of them were children, and half of them were girls. It didn’t matter.

A few agitators went in and attacked the protesters while they were still at the lunch counter, driving them out onto the sidewalk, where many more stood waiting. Resistance was futile, so the kids retreated to the Snyder Memorial Church, where they took refuge until the mob had dispersed. Things would have turned out worse if not for the brave intervention of the Boomerangs, a black street gang that took it upon themselves to help provide security for the protesters. At least 50 people were injured, and 62 arrested.

The violence was organized largely by the local KKK, which had terrorized Black people in the south throughout the 20th century. The Klan operated in the shadows, largely protected by local law-enforcement, some of whom were members themselves. In many cities, especially in the south, it was impossible to tell the difference between the vigilantes and the legitimate authorities; in some cases, there was no real difference at all. The speed with which the whites flooded into downtown that day defied any pretense of spontaneity, despite official denials of any formal organization.

It wasn’t until years later that the full, filthy truth was known. “I met an FBI informant in 2000,” says Hurst. “His name was Clarence Sears. He was assigned to the Klan by the FBI, and he wrote that on the Thursday before Ax Handle Saturday, the Klan had a meeting downtown, at one of the hotels, and they made plans to start a race war, using the sit-ins to do that. He wrote up the report and gave it to his FBI handler, who put it on the desk of the Duval County sheriff, Dale Carson, who was a former FBI person. We found out later that the report was intercepted by one of his lieutenants, who was a member of the Klan. We also found out later that the National Guard was on standby, both in St. Augustine and at Camp Blanding, so they knew that something was going to happen. But that day, downtown, there were no police.”

Much like today, the protest actions of 1960 illustrated some fundamental differences in strategy and the underlying philosophy between two generations of activists. “We didn’t share a lot of our plans with adults,” Hurst recalls. “At the direction of Mr. Pearson, we kept a lot of what we were going to do, and when we were going to do it, pretty close to the vest.” Some of the older folks thought the younger set was a bit too radical, too impatient, too reckless; they worried that blowback from their efforts could potentially undermine the incremental progress that had already been made. “The Black community was not monolithic at that time. After Ax Handle Saturday, a Black attorney said to my mother, ‘You need to do something about that boy. He’s upsetting circumstances for all of us. That’s been an age-old pushback.”

Aside from the activists themselves, there were a number of onlookers who would go on to play significant roles in local history,  including future state senator Arnett Girardeau and Nat Glover, who would become Jacksonville’s first black sheriff 35 years later. Stetson Kennedy was also there, covering the story for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most iconic Black newspapers. 40 years later, he wrote about it for Folio.

It was the story of the year in Jacksonville, but Ax Handle Saturday was mostly buried by local media at the time. National media took note, however, particularly Life Magazine, which had been documenting the Civil Rights Movement around the country since its beginning. The riot made headlines in Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the London Times and the New York Times. Jacksonville had two daily papers at the time; the Jacksonville Times-Union was published in the morning, and the Jacksonville Journal came out in the afternoon. Both papers had reporters on the scene that day, but none of them were allowed to file stories about what they saw.

It wasn’t until decades later that the city’s official institutions finally felt comfortable talking about what happened that day. Most residents had never heard of it at all until just a few weeks ago, when the removal of Confederate statues in the urban core sparked a widespread, comprehensive reappraisal of Black history in Northeast Florida, just in time for the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday. Its commemoration marks the end of an era for the brave activists who sat in that day. By Hurst’s estimation, of the three dozen or so people who joined him at the lunch counter, less than half a dozen are still alive today. As veteran activists like Hurst prepare to take their long-delayed victory lap, they continue to lead from the front, setting the pace for a movement that will continue for decades to come.

Folio would like to thank the Museum of Science and History Jacksonville for opening the Currents in Time exhibit for the filming of this video.