JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Rodney Hurst learned about segregation and racism as a child. But it was a history lesson from a teacher that sparked a relentless desire for change in Hurst from a young age.
In 1955, Hurst was an 11-year-old student of Rutledge Pearson, an educator and civil rights advocate, who shared powerful words with his class that stuck with Hurst long after that lesson.
“He told us to leave the books at home and he taught us an inclusion American history including the salient contributions of Black [people], who were not given anything but who helped develop this country, that was alien during the educational process even during the segregated time,” Hurst recalled.
Now, several decades years later, Hurst is still sharing that knowledge and educating others about the dangers of racism and the stain it left on Jacksonville in 1960.
Back then, downtown Jacksonville looked similar to what we see in 2020. The streets were filled with people coming and going. The chief difference? In 1960, it was segregated.
Though a teen at the time, Hurst became president of Jacksonville’s NAACP Youth Council. His mission was equality for all, and one of his goals was integrating the city’s lunch counters.
“All these stores had the same thing in common: they wanted Black folk to come in and spend their money but only where they wanted us to spend money,” Hurst said. “If I wanted to go and sit down at the lunch counter with the invisible sign that said ‘white,’ I could not do that.”
“And we said it was insulting,” he added.
In response to the lack of equality, the NAACP Youth Council began staging sit-in protests over two weeks at Cohen Brothers, Woolworth’s, Kress, W.T. Grant’s, Walgreens and McCrory’s.
“The two weeks that we were sitting in, we never saw police,” Hurst recalled. “There was no ‘protect and serve’ during these sit-in demonstrations.”
All of these businesses, including some located where City Hall and the federal courthouse now sit, were segregated. Knowing they couldn’t count on police protection, the youths had to live with what Hurst described as a “healthy fear.”
“We knew what the possibilities were, but at the same time we were still determined, as Mr. [Rutledge] Pearson said, to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem,” he said.
Those fears were realized on Aug. 27, 1960. Hurst said the day began like any other with him waking up to catch a bus that would take him to Laura Street downtown.
Hurst and other youth council members carried that same fear in their hearts as they traveled to W.T. Grant’s diner for a sit-in. They sat down and waited. Within minutes, hundreds of white men arrived, some wielding ax handles and baseball bats, as they attacked the teens and any other Black people downtown.
“When we came out of Grant’s, it began to focus on you that these were men with weapons and they were using those weapons,” Hurt said of the day known as Ax Handle Saturday.
No local media covered the attack, except the Florida Star, a local Black newspaper. Life Magazine and the Pittsburg Courier, an out-of-state newspaper, also picked up the story.
Hurst was arrested after the attack, but those charges were later dropped. His arrest warrant falsely claimed he was a 20-year-old man from New York City, but in reality, he was a 16-year-old from Jacksonville. A bogus witness put on the stand couldn’t identify him in court.
“I am sitting in the front row and the judge said, ‘Alright young man, for the record, point out Rodney Hurst,’” Hurst recalled. “And he didn’t know me, so what did he do? He pointed to someone in the back of the courtroom.”
In Hurst’s Book — It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke! — he detailed how Richard Parker, a white Florida State University student who joined the sit-ins was attacked and arrested the next day on charges of vagrancy and inciting a riot.
After Ax Handle Saturady, the fight for equality continued. Eventually, a biracial committee was formed to deal with segregation and other civil rights issues. It did not have the backing of then-Mayor Haydon Burns, but Black people kept up a boycott of segregated businesses.
After months of protests, lunch counters were integrated. But despite that step in the right direction, Hurst said it’s important for Jacksonville to remember the events that took place on Ax Handle Saturday.
“One of the things we do in American history is we ignore and omit things to make it seem as if things are fine,” he said. “We don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about the revolt in slavery, to make it appear as if Blacks were satisfied in slavery and they did not try to fight.”
As he noted, overlooking events like that can leave people with a mistaken impression.
"When you don't know about Ax Handle Saturday and the children's crusade .... and Ax Handle Saturday, everything is fine we didn't have any problems with the colored they were content with their own standard of less and that was far from the truth," Hurst said.
Today, a marker sits in the newly named James Weldon Johnson Park, once known as Hemming Park, marking the square where the attacks happened. It's a reminder of the senseless attack on children that changed so many lives and Jacksonville's history.
Hurst continues to educate locally and throughout the country about the Civil Rights movement, specifically Ax Handle Saturday. His detailed account of that era can be found in his book, It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke!