JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Before NASA put a man on the moon, Alton Yates was one of seven men in the U.S. Air Force who risked their lives during space exploration tests in the 1950s.
Yet to hear Yates tell it, he had more to fear from returning home to Jacksonville, where he and others later protested peacefully in pursuit of integration and equality in the River City.
One of the worst days he can recall was Aug. 27, 1960, a day we know as Ax Handle Saturday.
Yates was among seven men who volunteered for the America Space Program in New Mexico, which ran experiments to test the simulated effects of space flight on the human body.
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“It was our job to determine the effect of space travel on the human body and the way we did that [was] we subjected ourselves to high-speed rocket sled runs, where they would strap us into a rocket sled and fire us down the track at high speeds,” Yates said.
In News4Jax archived footage from 1977, Yates described what those tests were like.
“There were times when I thought that every ride would be my last ride. No two are alike,” he said. “The stress that your body sustains in one ride, depending on the configuration, depending on the rate, the way you hit the water break, was never the same.”
Through those experiments, Yates participated in dozens upon dozens of tests over a 4.5-year period. But when the experiments wrapped up, it was time for him to go home to Jacksonville.
That meant a 1,600-mile drive home, passing through segregated communities. Despite his military uniform, Yates was refused food and restroom service throughout the journey and his life was threatened on several occasions.
“It was on that journey home I ran into prejudice and discrimination and threats,” he recalled.
For Yates’ safety, he made one stop at a grocery store where he purchased a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter — that was all he ate on his trip until he got home safely.
“I decided as I was driving along that when I got home I would do everything in my power to work just as hard to try to get rid of those conditions as I worked to try to help get the Air Force into space,” he said. “So that’s what prompted me to join the NAACP Youth Council.”
At the age of 23, Yates joined the NAACP Youth Council and then became its vice president.
Then on Saturday, Aug. 27, 1960, before a planned protest, the organization was headed to Laura Street Presbyterian Church when Yates saw the men that would attack him and others for being Black.
“Nearly all of them had the stars and bars and Confederate flag,” he said of the men, some of whom were armed with baseball bats. “But what I saw was a man standing on the back of a truck…from a local hardware company, and he was passing out ax handles to all of these men that were gathered around the park.”
The NAACP Youth Council left the church and headed to a diner downtown for the planned sit-in protest, some went to a convenience store and others headed for Woolworth’s department store, which at the time had a diner.
“After we had been seated for a few minutes, evidently one of them had spotted us and he yelled to the group and a large group of them came charging into the store,” Yates recalled. “And that’s when they confronted us with the ax handles. They started beating us with the ax handles.”
Yates was struck in the back of the head. But he and others escaped and ran over to Snyder Memorial Church where they took refuge from the violent mob.
“I’m a guy who thought I knew fear doing all the things that I had done,” he said. “I knew fear, I felt fear, I felt hatred that people simply wanted to hurt me because of the color of my skin and I had never felt that before.”
After the weekend’s violence, then-Mayor Haydon Burns, a known segregationist, would not put his support behind a biracial committee to discuss an end to segregation of downtown, but the committee was formed without his backing.
Several months later, an agreement was reached and lunch counters downtown were integrated. But Yates’ work wasn’t done just yet. He would go on to push for civil rights and a better way of life for Black people in Jacksonville.
He served in the Air Force reserves and the Florida Air National Guard, retiring as a lieutenant colonel after a total of 32 years of service. He also worked at City Hall for Mayor Hans Tanzler.
These days, when Yates reflects on his time as a peaceful protester, he fondly remembers the time he spent serving the NAACP Youth Council.
"The intelligence, the bravery, the camaraderie of those young people — these were some of the brightest young people I have ever come in contact with in all my life," Yates said.
“These kids believed enough in Jacksonville that they were willing to risk their lives to save Jacksonville and make it a better place, just like the men in the Air Force were willing to risk their lives to get into outer space, so that space would not be dominated by one of our adversaries.”
Yates, who turned 84 and celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary this month, still lives in Jacksonville. The Stanton High grad who grew up in LaVilla before getting his masters degree from Occidental College also made a difference in the community through his involvement with the Florida Education Council and Jacksonville’s Anti-Poverty Agency.