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Ax Handle Saturday Remembered 60 Years Later At Newly Renamed Park

Rodney Hurst speaking on a platform, with a picture of the young black demonstrators in the background, the podium that Hurst is speaking on has flowers in front of it.
Sky Lebron
/
WJCT News
Rodney Hurst speaks in front of an image from Ax Handle Saturday at James Weldon Johnson Park

Civil Rights activists, community leaders and Jacksonville City Council members attended a gathering Thursday in what is now called James Weldon Johnson Park right outside of City Hall to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday. 

The commemoration was led by Rodney Hurst, who on August 27, 1960, led a group of Jacksonville Youth Council NAACP demonstrators to sit at a whites-only lunch counter Downtown in protest of racial inequalities and segregation. 

Their peaceful sit-in was met with violence that poured over into the streets when a mob of white men, wielding ax handles and baseball bats, attacked the demonstrators, and eventually all Black people in their sights, while the police did little to stop them. 

“We are here today for commemoration, not a celebration,” Hurst said on Thursday. “A commemoration for what happened more than 60 years ago in Downtown Jacksonville and, in part, in some of the areas where some of you are standing and sitting.”

Bishop Rudolph McKissick Sr., the pastor emeritus of The Bethel Baptist Church, said, “We know we have a long ways to go, but if it had not been for 60 years ago, the inimitable Rodney Hurst leading that youth segment of the NAACP, we would not have come this far.” 

Speakers reflected on the past and the progress they’ve seen, but also what they would like to see moving forward. 

“We'll get there,” said McKissick. “I may not see it, [and] that's all right. I'm seeing a whole lot now that I never thought I would see.” 

Several City Council members spoke in person or virtually, including Council President Tommy Hazouri, acting President Sam Newby, and co-Chair of the Social Justice and Community Investment Committee Brenda Priestly Jackson. 

Priestly Jackson is also Hurst’s niece.

“Today in Jacksonville, we remain a city separated by seven bridges of opportunities,” Priestly Jackson said. “For many, septic tanks that need to be removed, crumbling infrastructure, economic development not viable or visible in certain parts of our city, disparate educational outcomes and opportunities, job loss, economic anxieties experienced because of the pandemic and recession, health disparities and death of our neighbors because of COVID-19 and ongoing inequities. That's part of our present.” 

A group of people looking at Councilwoman Brenda Preistly Jackson, who is speaking on top of a platform behind a podium
Credit Sky Lebron / WJCT News
City Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson took time to call on Jacksonville's needs for improvements today, which she said were goals from peaceful demonstrators back in 1960

The councilwoman called for change in Jacksonville.

“I ask that we commit to a more just Jacksonville, not one separated by seven bridges of unequal opportunities, but one that fulfills the promises that those youth believed in what they put themselves in harm's way,” she said.

Also in attendance Thursday: young Black Jacksonville residents who came to reflect on the events of 60 years ago. 

“It’s great to see an older Black person who has already lived through this and experienced the Black experience in their times,” said Jaiquan Tyre. “It gives me more context and wisdom to my own experience.” 

Alongside Tyre, local activist Alexis Kiara held on to a copy of Hurst’s book, It Was Never About A Hot Dog And A Coke!, while listening to the speakers. 

“Rodney Hurst is a hero,” Kiara said. “He deserves to be commemorated more than just on occasions when bad things have happened. So I'm just here to continue to learn more and to continue to be a volunteer to the movement.” 

The Aeolians Choir from Oakwood University and local child singing phenom Keedron Bryant broke up the speeches with songs, including “We Shall Overcome” and “I Just Want To Live.”

The presentation also included a short video clip from the streets of Jacksonville on Ax Handle Saturday, and other clips of peaceful protests a racial violence from the early 1960s. 

Hurst also read a statement from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recognizing Ax Handle Saturday. 

“We are in a battle for the soul of our nation, and the American people deserve leaders who will meet this moment, speak truth to power, and above all else - act,” the statement read. 

The commemoration comes as the City Council this month changed the name of the park from Hemming Park, which was named after a Confederate general, to James Weldon Johnson Park, in honor of the late Black writer, lawyer and activist from Jacksonville. 

The change did meet some backlash, as a couple of City Council members said they didn’t want to rename the park after another person.

“The struggle that happened just a few weeks ago to make that [renaming] happen, wherein one Councilman says he didn't want to talk about the issue of race, is a reminder of just how far we have to come,” said Jacksonville attorney Earl Johnson Jr.

The park also saw its Confederate statue  — which stood in the center of the park  —  taken down overnight in June by order of Mayor Lenny Curry. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.