Civil rights movement part of old Jacksonville City Hall history

Building featured segregated areas, site of protests in 1960s

By Janese Harris, Roxy Tyler - Web producer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In 1960, a new City Hall was opening on Ocean Drive next to the Duval County Courthouse in downtown Jacksonville at the height of the civil rights movement.

William Haydon Burns, a known segregationist, served as mayor and his office was inside City Hall.

Burns was known for promoting Jacksonville as a city for great opportunity, but that opportunity wasn't for everyone as segregation reigned throughout city government.

At the time, the entire City Council was made up of white men.

During segregation, signs with the word "colored" on them sat above America's public water fountains, restrooms, city halls and courthouses. 

An exhibit at the Ritz Theater and Museum depicts a segregated Jacksonville. Newspaper clippings from that time show the pain and horror of racism and the racial tension that plagued our city and others across the nation.

Adonnica Toler, museum adminstrator for the Ritz Theater and Museum said in Jacksonville, said all the clippings from that time on display are from other newspapers across the country, with the exception of the ones from the Florida Star, a black newspaper.

She said even though there were protests in Jacksonville, the local media did not cover it at all, despite the racial climate.

"The racial climate was very intense here in Jacksonville. That is the year of the Ax Handle riot and the activities leading up to that. In August, that whole year, there were various protests by the NAACP. Youth Council, led by Rodney Hurst and other leaders and Alton Yates, and you have Mr. Rutledge Pearson, their fearless leader of the NAACP here in Jacksonville, Florida, as they are moving forward trying to change the social climate in public," Toler said. "The local papers did not cover this incident or the Ax Handle incident. They did not cover it at all, even though it was covered in the North." 

Though adults stood for equality and an end to racism during the civil rights movement, there were many teens who participated, too.

Among them was youth civil rights activist, Rodney Hurst who wrote a book about Ax Handle Saturday.

In the book Hurst states: "We saw several white men wearing Confederate uniforms. Other whites walked around Hemming Park (with) axe handles ... moments later axe handles and baseball bats were thrown at anyone who was Black."

Hurst was a teen when he was arrested for participating in the sit-in during Ax Handle Saturday. He faced trial before Judge Marion Gooding and was represented by Earl Johnson Sr., a civil rights attorney.

Johnson was a member of the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame and also represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when King came to march in St. Augustine.

His son, Earl Johnson Jr., recalls how his father integrated the courtroom before the end of segregation.

"It was extraordinary. When he came to the Duval County Courthouse in 1958, what he found was there were only a handful of black attorneys in Jacksonville at the time, and no black attorneys were actually sitting where attorneys sit. In the courtroom, the black attorneys were segregated and relegated to the gallery section, where the public sat," Johnson Jr. said. "So when my father walked in, he saw E. W. Perkins, a legendary attorney, who by 1958 was in his 70s, and he tapped Mr. Perkins on the shoulder, and said, 'Come on, Mr. Perkins. Let's go sit where the lawyers sit."'

Johnson said, in that moment, his father desegregated the courthouse in 1958‚Äč.

"I think it's important to recognize that Jacksonville is one the epicenters of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. There was no question about it," Johnson Jr. said. 

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