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James Weldon Johnson Park Added To National African American Civil Rights Network

people mill around a plaza in front of a 60th anniversary backdrop
Sky Lebron
A stage is set in James Weldon Johnson Park for the commemoration of Ax Handle Saturday on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, the 60th anniversary.

The newly named James Weldon Johnson Park in Downtown Jacksonville has been added to the African American Civil Rights Network on Thursday, the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt issued the proclamation designating James Weldon Johnson Park part of the? African American Civil Rights Network.

“On this 60th anniversary of the tragic events in Jacksonville, it is my honor to designate the site of Ax Handle Saturday as the 31st addition to the African American Civil Rights Network,” said Secretary Bernhardt in an email to WJCT News. ?“President Trump enacted the American Civil Rights Network legislation to tell the complete and often painful story of the struggle for civil rights to foster healing, tolerance and understanding among all Americans.”

“Sixty years ago this week, Jacksonville witnessed the worst of humanity,” said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, in an email. “As we reflect on this day in history, I am pleased that the Trump Administration is designating James Weldon Johnson Park to be a part of the African American Civil Rights Network. James Weldon Johnson was a leader and an outspoken voice in the fight for equality for all Americans. He was a great Floridian, and it’s fitting that the park dedicated to his memory will be a place that we remember and honor the victims of the atrocities committed on Ax Handle Saturday.”

"The significance of James Weldon Johnson is very important to Duval, the Jacksonville area, because he wrote the Negro National Anthem," said North Florida Congressman Al Lawson, D-FL, who introduced a resolution seeking this very designation on August 18.

As the proclamation states: on the morning of Aug. 27, 1960, an interracial group of young people participated in a peaceful protest by sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in the W.J. Grant Department Store in Downtown Jacksonville. Led by African American high school student Rodney Hurst and representing the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the protest was inspired by the successes of the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina the previous month. The peaceful protesters faced strong opposition to their sit-in as they were verbally abused and spat on by other patrons. Once the store closed, the peaceful protesters were brutally attacked with baseball bats and wooden ax handles by members of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizen Council.

The mob attacked any Black person they saw the on the street. Although the victims begged for help, nearby police officers did not intervene. As the mob continued to James Weldon Johnson Park, Klan members began a coordinated attack on the peaceful protesters, beating them with ax handles and bats previously hidden in bushes around the park.

The failure of the police force to intervene early on, thus giving the mob more time to attack, is a chief cause of the violence that day, and led state NAACP leaders to converge on Jacksonville as they advised local officials on how to move forward to prevent retributive violence. The event was the most violent racial clash in the city before or since and inspired local activists to continue in their fight for civil rights.

"It's always good to recognize these historical events, whether they were bad or good, so people can learn from them," said Lawson.

The African American Civil Rights Network Act, signed into law by President Trump in January 2018, authorizes the National Park Service to coordinate and facilitate activities to commemorate, honor, and interpret the history of the African American Civil Rights movement.

James Weldon Johnson Park joins 30 sites in the network, 18 of which are administered by the National Park Service. They include Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, Pullman National Monument and the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

Special Projects Producer Brendan Rivers joined WJCT News in August of 2018 after several years as a reporter and then News Director at Southern Stone Communications, which owns and operates several radio stations in the Daytona Beach area.