Pain & pride remain for those tied to Jacksonville’s sit-ins

Lloyd Pearson remembers brother who organized demonstration on Ax Handle Saturday

Lloyd Pearson remembers brother who organized demonstration on Ax Handle Saturday

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – This week marks a somber anniversary: it’ll be 60 years since Ax Handle Saturday, when a mob of white men attacked Black teenagers in downtown Jacksonville after the teens staged sit-in demonstration.

News4Jax is highlighting the stories of the men and women pushed for equal rights. Many used sit-ins as peaceful protests to call for change. Those included now 98-year-old Lloyd Pearson Jr. and his family.

“It was quite a time, quite a time,” Pearson told News4Jax from his Northwest Jacksonville home, where he still lives today.

Pearson remembers the civil rights movement like it was yesterday.

“We had faith that something would happen, with that you don’t know the future,” he said. “And we had faith, so we would sing songs of hope.”

Songs like “Woke Up This Morning,” which Pearson still enjoys reciting.

“Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” he sang. “Hallelujah!” I’m so glad I got my mind stayed on freedom. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

At the time, Pearson was a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, so he remembers being more reserved in his activism, providing refreshments and support for the protesters.

But his younger brother, Rutledge Pearson, didn’t hold back. He became a well-known Black activist and educator. In 1960, he arranged to hold sit-in demonstrations at then-segregated restaurants.

“[Demonstrators] were advised to go in the store and keep their eyes on the counter,” Lloyd Pearson recalled. “And when someone would get up, they were going to town. So after quite a few sitting in, the people cut the lights out while they were sitting there.”

At the time, Pearson said, federal law allowed Black people to sit at a restaurant, but the waitresses didn’t have to serve them. And despite the law, demonstrators were often arrested. That included Pearson’s son, who was 14 at the time. He was taken to a juvenile facility.

“When I went in and I told them that I came to pick up my son, they came in the back to give me a talk. They first asked me, did I know my son was down there?” he recalled. “I said ‘Yes, I did.’ And they said, ‘Did he have your permission to be down there?’ And I said, ‘Yes, he did.’”

Days later, on Aug. 27, 1960, which would become known as Ax Handle Saturday, he helped a group of young men and teenagers go to the counter at the Woolworth’s Store’s Café in downtown Jacksonville.

Sit-in at Woolworth (Rodney Hurst Collection)

It was dark day in Jacksonville’s history: a mob of about 200 white men found out about the sit-in and went downtown armed with baseball bats and ax handles.

While the demonstrators got away, an iconic picture shows a bloodied young man, Charlie Griffin, who had been attacked by the mob. Griffin wasn’t even part of the sit-ins. Police didn’t arrest the mob attacking the peaceful demonstrators but a small number of protesters were arrested.

“They did not have any Black policeman back then,” Pearson said. “It was before they hired any Black policemen.”

Pearson said the incident was hurtful, but he noted that it helped shine a light on the issues Black people faced, especially in the South. His brother would go on to push for more change: leading Florida’s chapter of the NAACP before he died mysteriously seven years later in a car crash in Tennessee with trauma to the back of his head, which his family still views suspiciously.

Still, Lloyd Pearson kept the faith, praying for a brighter future.

“I think we’ve come a long way. We’ve made a lot of progress,” he told News4Jax. “It’s much better than it was back then, although we do have some progress to make.”

Rutledge Pearson has been inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. The downtown Jacksonville Post Office has been named after him, as well as a street and elementary school in the city.

And at 98 years old, Lloyd Pearson is still active in the community, hoping to make it a better place.

Lloyd Pearson says Jacksonville has come a long way since 1960. "It’s much better than it was back then, although we do have some progress to make," he says. (WJXT 2020)

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.