Surprised White onlookers spat and spewed racial epithets at the demonstrators and sometimes physically attacked them. But as spring blossomed into summer, white supremacists farther South, having watched the protests achieve success elsewhere, switched to high alert.
So when young Black people began staging sit-ins at a Whites-only Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., that summer, the Ku Klux Klan organized.
On the morning of what has become notoriously known as “Ax Handle Saturday,” more than 200 White men wielding wooden ax handles launched a vicious attack on Black protesters and passersby.
Before pulling the plug on an in-person convention in Jacksonville, President Trump was scheduled to speak there on the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, angering local activists. Now he will accept the nomination in a speech from the White House, which is surrounded by fencing after repeated Black Lives Matter protests.
In 1960, the Klan attack in Florida signaled a sharp turn in the cascading sit-in movement, from spontaneous acts of racism to coordinated white supremacist brutality, according to Stanford University history professor Clayborne Carson.
“As [the protesters] began to achieve some success in the upper South, then in the Deep South areas, resistance became more intense,” said Carson, who is also founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford.
The lunch counter sit-ins that spring had inspired members of the Youth Council of the Jacksonville NAACP to launch nonviolent direct action of their own.
Their adult leader was a man named Rutledge Henry Pearson, a young history teacher, devout Christian and Negro leagues baseball player.
In history class, Pearson, a civil rights activist, would sternly counsel his students that “freedom is not free.” He would tell them when classes began to leave their system-issued books at home while he created new lessons for them in Black history. Among those who revered him was Rodney L. Hurst, the 16-year-old Youth Council president at the time, whose 2011 book richly described Pearson, the sit-ins and the spectacle of brutality that followed.
Pearson taught his students that Hemming Park, a centerpiece of the downtown shopping district that included Woolworth’s, was named for Charles C. Hemming, a local Civil War veteran who in 1898 donated a towering Confederate monument to the city. To instill pride, Pearson also informed them that Jacksonville was the hometown of James Weldon Johnson, the Black activist and poet who penned “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” popularly known as the Negro national anthem.
Woolworth’s, which anchored one edge of Hemming Park, had two lunch counters, Hurst wrote, one at the front of the store with dozens of seats near the windows marked “WHITES ONLY,” and one in the back past the segregated water fountains and restrooms with just 15 seats and no windows for Black customers.
“When we started the sit-in demonstrations, we wanted everyone to know eating a hot dog and drinking a Coke would not be our focus,” Hurst wrote. “Human dignity would be our fundamental focus, along with making segregation extremely expensive.” The students knew, he said, that stores typically responded to lunch counter sit-ins by shutting down business altogether.
On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 13, about 100 youth members gathered at church to pray and sing before walking in discrete groups of two or three to Woolworth’s for the first sit-in. They carried money in their pockets in the highly unlikely event they were served at the lunch counter.
After they sat down, a female server came over and loudly announced that Black people were not served at the White lunch counter. A White manager then reiterated the server’s point and directed the teens to the Black lunch counter, Hurst wrote. When the protesters didn’t budge, he closed the lunch counter. Meanwhile, a crowd of White onlookers assembled and began to hurl racial slurs.
After the first sit-in, the Black protesters were joined by Richard Charles Parker, a sympathetic White college student at Florida State University. Although he was not a leader, Whites in the community assumed he was. “Most observers always thought if Whites were involved they were the leaders of a civil rights demonstration in the South,” Hurst wrote.
Woolworth’s tried various strategies to discourage the demonstrators. They attempted to serve their regular White customers by lining them up at a designated bay and shifted the counter hours a half-hour or so to throw off the activists — all to no avail.
On Thursday, Aug. 25, Hurst wrote, Pearson received an anonymous call warning that something would happen to Parker if he continued to participate. At the lunch counter that day, the college student found himself surrounded by construction workers carrying ropes and tools, joined by hissing White onlookers. Just in time, several members of a Black neighborhood gang known as the “Boomerangs” walked into the Woolworth’s and sidled up near Parker at the lunch counter. He resisted, according to Hurst, until the Boomerangs physically picked Parker up from his seat and hustled him out the door to safety, eventually losing the crowd of worked-up Whites who trailed them.
Two days later, on Saturday, Pearson again received calls about suspicious activity — this time at Hemming Park. “We saw several white men wearing Confederate uniforms,” recalled one member of the Youth Council in Hurst’s book. “Other whites walked around Hemming Park carrying ax handles with Confederate flags taped to them. A signed taped to a delivery-type van … read ‘Free Ax Handles.’ ”
At the meeting that morning, Pearson filled the protesters in on the threat. Pushing past fear, they voted unanimously to demonstrate that day at the W.T. Grant department store’s Whites-only lunch counter.
When store officials closed up rather than serving them, they left — and walked straight into a White mob. “In a surreal scene, they swung those ax handles and baseball bats at every Black they saw,” Hurst wrote. The attackers also went after downtown shoppers.
A photo in the Sept. 12, 1960, issue of Life magazine showed a high school student in a blood-spattered shirt standing next to a law enforcement officer. Charles Griffin happened to be passing through and, photo notwithstanding, during the actual fracas, “all law enforcement officers had disappeared,” Hurst said.
Decades later Clarence Sears, an FBI informant who had infiltrated the local Klan in the days leading up to the attack, detailed what happened. Klan members promised to have teenagers “start a fight with these demonstrators, and then the adult Klansmen will come in with fists and their clubs and beat the hell out of them,” Sears said in a 2015 interview with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.
Sears said the FBI put a copy of his report detailing the Klan’s plans on the desk of the local sheriff, who was a former FBI agent. But the sheriff was out of town, and a police official reportedly found it and slipped a copy to the Klan. As the attack unfolded, “the local police, the sheriff’s office, there was nobody,” Sears said. “They knew it was planned; they didn’t do anything.”
It turns out the Florida Times-Union looked the other way as well, instructing photographers and reporters not to cover the sit-ins and burying a small story about the Klan assault on the Black protesters inside the Sunday paper. (A columnist for the newspaper wrote about the lapse for the 50th anniversary in 2010.)
The Florida Star, the Black-owned newspaper, “really filled the void that the mainstream media refused to fill,” Hurst said in a 2010 interview on “Florida Frontiers,” a public radio show produced by the Florida Historical Society. “I don’t think they’re proud of that, but there’s nothing they can do about it now. That’s just another part of history.”
Today, Jacksonville lives uneasily with that history. The 1959 naming of a city high school after Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest was a flash point that helped spark the sit-ins. The name was not changed — to Westside High — until 2014.
As for Hemming Park, the mayor ordered the removal of the Confederate memorial on June 9. After contentious debate over whether Hemming Park should be called Veterans Memorial Park instead, the Jacksonville City Council voted this month to rename it after James Weldon Johnson.
“There has always been racial division in Jacksonville, and that is still true today,” said Ben Brotemarkle, the historical society’s executive director. “Although people are more willing to talk about Ax Handle Saturday, that is still a painful part of the past.”
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