57 years ago on a seemingly normal day in Jacksonville, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council had decided they had enough of second class citizenship. And, on that day, they would sit down so they could stand up for their rights.
Sixteen-year-old Rodney L. Hurst was president of the Jacksonville Youth Council and lead the sit-ins at “whites only” lunch counters in Woolworth’s and W.J. Grant Department Store to protest racial segregation.
While peacefully sitting at the downtown lunch counter, the attack began with white people spitting on the protesters and yelling racial slurs at them. When the youth exercised the unresponsive non violent resolve they had been taught, they were beaten with wooden handles that had not yet had metal ax heads attached.
The once peaceful demonstration evolved into a melee where not only the demonstrators were attacked, but anyone with brown skin. By the time the protesters were able to flee to a nearby church, even police had joined in beating the protesters.
While the day’s events were documented in Life Magazine and newspapers from major cities across the country, local reporters from the Jacksonville Times-Union and the Jacksonville Journal were not allowed to cover the story. Like many other cities, the Black press remained the heartbeat and voice of the movement.
Decades later, while African-Americans are legally afforded every right, we still are in trying times. Less than a year after culminating the two term presidency of the nation’s first Commander in Chief of color, Blacks are still disproportionately incarcerated and murdered, white supremacists are more flagrant than ever and the battle over confederate statues has hit the mainstream again.
Hurst, who was only 16 at the time of the sit-in has remained vigilant in his quest for civil rights. Noted as a historian an acclaimed author, he has made sure that the memory of Jacksonville’s brutality and its citizens struggle for equality has remained alive. This year he brought together a collaborative of citizens who offered solutions to race relations at the 57th Ax Handle anniversary commemoration.
Isaiah Rumlin, President of the Jacksonville Branch NAACP reminded the audience of why the NAACP is just as relevant as it was six decades ago. He cited the current fight on behalf of homeowners of the Fairway Oaks subdivision who built their Habijax sponsored houses on a contaminated site. Now they are falling apart. Rumlin also mentioned recent accomplishments that didn’t make the news such as charges being dropped against the Jax 5 (demonstrators arrested and beaten by police for protesting against the bombing of Syria) and even helping a young honor student get into college after being denied admission.
Between speakers, Mr. Hurst passed around a ax handle throughout the audience to allow them to get a feel of the heaviness of the wood he faced as a teen.
The hard wood served as the perfect segue for his next speaker on breaking down difficult and hard conversations. Nancy Broner, Executive Director of OneJax, is tasked with raising awareness on bias and bigotry in the community. “People think we are just going to age out of racism,” she said citing the new breed of racists in millennials and teens.
Jacksonville hopes to combat that national trend with a new project for local students. Organized by the Center for Urban Education and Policy at the University of North Florida, a mural is being designed by 20 high school students that will be on a building on A. Phillip Randolph Blvd. According to Dr. Rudy Jamison, the mural will be based largely on Hurst’s book, “It Was Never About a Hotdog and a Coke,” and will inspire viewers to, “do something.”
Hope McMath, former director of the Cummer Museum, said her drive for racial equality is what propelled her to start her latest venture , “The Yellow House,” where her goal is to fuse art and change. She humbly shared her upbringing in Jacksonville and how so much was left out of its history books.
“You find new heroes when you learn the history you have been taught is wrong,” said McMath.
The large diverse audience attending the commemoration had the opportunity to do something that would not have been allowed 57 years ago – to listen, learn and fellowship together. The standing room only crowd participated in the National Negro Anthem, prayer and viewed the museum’s exhibit on Ax Handle Saturday. A very generous free buffet lunch was also available for participants to be educated in comfort. In the end, they left a little more enlightened as tow how they could contribute and participate in creating a better Jacksonville.
The actual history of the day was not discussed much. Attendees were able to view the exhibit and visualize the time from the many photographs and hands on accounts in front of them. Some stood in disbelief that this could have occurred in the “bold new city of the south.”
One thing is certain, the city of Jacksonville’s progress moving forward in race relations would not be for lack of opportunity.
“It was not a myth or legend, it happened, it is a part of DNA,” said Hurst. “How we change our course from here is up to us.”