Civil rights activist points out errors in proclamation commemorating Ax Handle Saturday

Department of the Interior says proclamation was compiled from publicly available information

A new Federal proclamation commemorates Ax Handle Saturday, the infamous event 60 years ago when black residents were beaten by a racist mob after a sit-in at a downtown lunch counter. But one local activist who survived the attack tells our very own Jenese Harris that the proclamation isn't accurate.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On the 60th commemoration of Ax Handle Saturday, an attack on Black teenagers participating in a 1960 lunch counter sit-in, big names in politics, including U.S. Reps. Al Lawson and John Rutherford, took to social media to honor the day.

The biggest honor was a proclamation from the United States Department of the Interior that commemorates the day Ax Handle Saturday happened.

But according to local civil rights activist Rodney Hurst, the 1960 NAACP Youth Council president who was 16 years old when he and others were attacked on Ax Handle Saturday, the proclamation has multiple errors.

The proclamation states: “... the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of Jacksonville, Florida took place on August 27, 1960, when nearly 3,000 protestors peacefully demonstrated in Hemming Plaza, now James Weldon Johnson Park, as part of a coordinated effort to challenge racial discrimination ... "

But Hurst said there were not thousands of protesters.

“As I look through this proclamation, there were not 3,000 protesters downtown. We were not protesting in Hemming Park. We were protesting, but we were protesting racism by sitting at these visible vestiges of segregation — the white lunch counters,” he said.

There were actually 35 sit-in participants — not 3,000 protesters. The attackers totaled approximately 150 to 200.

The second line in the proclamation states Ax Handle Saturday “resulted in the eventual integration of public accommodations citywide.”

But Hurst said that’s false. A biracial committee was formed despite opposition from then-Mayor Haydon Burns’ office.

“The only thing that came out of that (meeting) — and it was a first step — was the integration of the lunch counters downtown — not citywide integration,” Hurst said.

In the proclamation is another statement: “ ... this sit-in was part of a direct action campaign created by Rutledge Pearson ... ”

“No, he did not. Mr. Pearson was our advisor. We (NAACP Youth Council) made the decision to sit in,” Hurst explained.

Another statement in the proclamation says “Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council members” were responsible for the attack.

“You can’t blanketly say that these were just Klan members and these were just White Citizens Council members,” Hurst said.

The proclamation also states ax handles were “previously hidden around the park.”

“No, they were very public about it, and the police saw them,” Hurst said.

And the proclamation states the civil rights movement in Jacksonville began with Ax Handle Saturday. But it actually began in the 1950s.

Hurst said facts are needed for a moment in history that has shaped the local and national civil rights movement for generations to come.

“If a proclamation is going to be issued by the federal government, the least they can do is get their facts straight,” Hurst said.

READ: Designation of James Weldon Johnson Park as part of the African American Civil Rights Network

The Department of the Interior told News4Jax: “This proclamation was compiled from publicly available information, including local sources. The designation recognizes the significant role the James Weldon John Park played in the struggle for civil rights.”

The Department of the Interior also said the National Park Service provides recommendations for the inclusion of the network and Secretary David Bernhardt is committed to ensuring historical accuracy.

News4Jax reached out to Lawson’s and Rutherford’s offices but had not received a response from either as of Monday night.

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