Ax Handle Saturday protester: ‘No one backed away’

Marjorie Meeks Brown knew danger awaited her & others staging a sit-in protest

Marjorie Meeks Brown knew danger awaited her & others staging a sit-in protest

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – At age 16, Marjorie Meeks Browns was among the youth protesters attacked during a peaceful lunch counter sit-in Aug. 27, 1960, in downtown Jacksonville.

But Meeks Brown would go on to make history later in life by paving the way for other African Americans through her work in one of the most widely recognizable federal agencies.

When she sat down for a Youth NAACP meeting at the Laura Street Presbyterian Church that day, Meeks Brown learned that danger would be waiting for her and other demonstrators.

“Our leaders told us that there was a swarm that had gathered at Hemming Park, handing out ax handles with the intent of running off the troublemakers,” she told News4Jax.

These ax handles were given to white men in an anticipation that some black teenagers and young adults would be attempting to sit at what was then a segregated lunch counter.

“Perhaps that one day, Ax Handle Saturday, was the first time that I really felt true fear,” she said.

Among the peaceful protesters were Youth NAACP President Rodney Hurst, Vice President Alton Yates and Meeks Brown, the group’s secretary. Knowing the danger that awaited them, the group took a vote on whether they should carry on with the demonstration.

“No one backed away,” Meeks Brown said. “No one backed away.”

As a child, Meeks Brown lived at the intersection Moncrief Road and 30th Street. Growing up, segregation was a reality for her family and others in the neighborhood.

Photograph of a young Marjorie Meeks Brown (Courtesy of Marjorie Meeks Brown)

“There’s a swimming pool for whites only,” she remembered. “They built a second pool just to keep black folks out of the swimming pool, then when we go there they covered up the pool.”

She knew segregation was fueled by hatred as she walked through an all-white Brentwood neighborhood in the 1960s to get her mother to work at a diner. Everyone was cruel to them.

“Walking my mom to work and kids throwing rocks at us,” she recalled. “When we got to the restaurant, we had to go through the back door.”

So on Aug. 27, 1960, Meeks Brown participated in the sit-in and walked into Grant’s Store, located in downtown Jacksonville off Laura Street. Despite her courage, she was afraid.

“It was the first time in my life that I feared for my safety, I felt that I would be hurt or killed,” she said. “White guys coming toward us, an angry crowd, so we immediately got up and were told to leave… and we did that as fast as we could.”

Meeks Brown escaped and returned to the church on Laura Street. But the violence didn’t end there. “It stretched out into the city — there was black-and-white violence that night,” she said.

Though Meeks Brown’s recollection is one of many accounts of what transpired that day, there are few photos of the mob attack, in large part because no local media covered the story.

Protesting for civil rights gave Meeks Brown the determination to be successful in life, but in school she was already known as the woman "most likely to succeed".

When she began working at the local United States Postal Service office, she found it too was segregated. Still, she climbed the ranks to supervisor — until the promotions stopped.

There were no Black people in top management positions at the USPS in Jacksonville. Meeks Brown climbed up the ranks in Florida and returned to Jacksonville to become one of the highest-ranking managers. The same would happen in Miami, New York, and Atlanta.

Marjorie Meeks Brown's unprecedented success in the U.S. Postal Service led to regional and national coverage. (Courtesy of Marjorie Meeks Brown)

Eventually, she became one of two female postmasters of one of the top 15 post offices in the country, a success story that garnered national attention.

She also created a local chapter of A-Plus, meaning African American postal employees united in 1987, along with NETWORK, a mentorship program for Black women in management and executive positions in the postal service.

Despite her success, Meeks Brown considers becoming a wife, mother of five, grandmother of nine and great grandmother of three to be one of her greatest accomplishments.

Looking back at Ax Handle Saturday, she said Jacksonville can’t overlook what happened.

“All citizens of Jacksonville need to know and understand this happened and this is why and this is where we are today and how can we take that and build on it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

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Veteran journalist and Emmy Award winning anchor