Civil rights leader remembers ‘Ax Handle Saturday’ 60 years later

On Thursday, President Trump officially accepts the Republican presidential nomination on the final night of the Republican National Convention from the White House lawn. The previously announced venue choice, Jacksonville, Fla., was problematic, particularly among Black Americans. Aug. 27 is also the 60th anniversary of a notorious episode in the city: the bloody race riot known as “Ax Handle Saturday.” Longtime Jacksonville native and local civil rights leader Rodney Hurst, who was among those attacked that day, said the prospect of Trump coming to town didn’t make “any difference.”

Video Transcript

RODNEY HURST: So it remains to be seen if the conscience of white America has really been pricked by what they saw, and whether or not they really want to do something about racism in this country.

The fact that the RNC was scheduled to come to Jacksonville-- the fact that Donald Trump was scheduled to make his acceptance speech on August 27, which is the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, just focus more attention on this infamous, violent day in the history of Jacksonville. But it also focused attention on how whites in the South responded to Blacks demonstrating for their rights and human dignity and respect.

- During the early weeks of February, 1960, the demonstrations that came to be called the sit-in movement exploded across the South. Within a period of two months, the movement had spread to 65 cities, involving every southern state with the exception of Mississippi. The new tactic came as a surprise, creating bewilderment and confusion in the white communities, and even among the Negroes themselves.

- It's just not things we're used to down here. I mean, they come in, and they sit down, and we're not used to them sitting down beside us, because I wasn't raised with them. I never have lived with them, and I'm not going to start now.

- The policemen, they gave me an alternative. They said, son, you can sit here on this stool and act a fool, or you can get up and go home. And I made my choice. I decided that I would keep my seat. And they told me I was under arrest, and then they took me away.

BERNARD LAFAYETTE: We were trained in nonviolent direct action, focused on the lunch counters. And that's what our training was about.

RODNEY HURST: My name is Rodney Lawrence Hurst. I was 16 as the president of the youth council NAACP and was one of the leaders of the sit-ins.

Well, the morning of Ax Handle Saturday-- the morning of August 27th, 1960, Mr. Pearson got a call. And the caller told him that there was some strange goings-on in Hemming Park that morning. And so, Mr. Pearson rode by Hemming Park that morning. And there were whites in Confederate uniforms passing out ax handles. There was a station wagon at one corner of the park, and there was a sign that said free ax handles.

And they had intended on creating a race war in downtown Jacksonville. So all of this-- handing out the ax handles-- all of that was part and parcel of that.

We met at a Black Presbyterian church right on the fringes of downtown. And when we assembled to have our youth council meeting-- to sing our freedom songs and to pray, and then we would leave the church in twos and threes walking downtown-- we did not leave in a march or in a mass. When Mr. Pearson told us that something could happen that day, and he told us what he saw at Hemming Park, well we decided we would sit in any way.

The members of the Klan-- those persons who got the ax handles-- when they realized that we were sitting in at one of the department stores, then they ran from Hemming Park to where we were. And as we came out of the store after sitting in, and they closed the lunch counters, we were met by about 200 white with ax handles and baseball bats.

So, even though there have been some strides-- I don't call it progress. I call it a heightened level of toleration about white folk and Black folk-- but Jacksonville, just like the country, has a very long way to go. A number of my friends in the movement who are still with us talk from time to time about when the Civil Rights Bill was passed in '64 and the Voting Rights Act passed in '65 and '68, that some of us kind of took our foot off the gas, figuring that now things were beginning to come into an order.

And we have seen with the United States Supreme Court-- which used to be a bastion of segregation, change to a bastion of fairness and equality, now back to a bastion of segregation-- that they've made decisions that have both crippled the Voting Rights Act-- both of them-- and have crippled the intent of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.

The struggle continues. And that is no matter who you are, when you are fighting racism you've got to do something. Doing nothing is not an option. So, even though you get tired, you can't get weary. You get tired of fighting racism-- Go somewhere. Go to the mountaintop, re-energize, and come back down to the valley to fight some more.