We decided our first sit-in would take place on Saturday, August 13, 1960, at Woolworth Department Store. Though we focused on Woolworth because of its strategic location, we also targeted the restaurant in Cohen Brothers (which now houses Jacksonville's City Hall) and the lunch counters at W. T. Grant Department store, Kress Department store, and McCrory's Department store.
On the morning of August 13, 1960, we had more than 100 [NAACP] Youth Council members ready to go. In our Youth Council meeting that Saturday morning, we prayed and sang our freedom songs. Leaving Laura Street Presbyterian Church Youth Center on foot en route to Woolworth's in groups of twos and threes alerted no one.
We arrived at Woolworth's a little after 11:00 a.m., well aware of what we were preparing to do. I called that morning the "beginning of a mission." Understanding that "freedom is not free," we had to step up to the plate; we had to stand up and be counted; we had to let everyone know what we were made of-all the clichis applied. We were not attending an after-school dance or a sock hop. Our mission was simple and serious.
Upon entering Woolworth, we planned to purchase an item to demonstrate that the store would accept our money. No problem there. However, if, Woolworth refused to serve us at the white lunch counter, we would use the earlier purchase to show the contradiction in Woolworth's store policy-they would accept our money at one counter, while summarily refusing it at another.
Each of us always made sure we had enough money in our pocket just in case they decided to serve us at the counter. We would later joke with each other about newspaper headlines that read, "Youth Council members arrested, not for sitting in, but for not having money to pay for the food they ordered."
Each demonstration had sit-in captains, and only the captains would talk to the media. We did not want conflicting "official" comments. Alton Yates and I were captains of the first sit-in on August 13, 1960. After purchasing our items, and at an agreed upon signal, Youth Council NAACP members followed Alton, Marjorie Meeks, and me to the white lunch counter. Jacksonville's sit-in era had begun.
After sitting down, a white waitress announced loudly to all who could hear that "Coloreds are not served at this lunch counter. This is the white lunch counter. The colored lunch counter is at the back of the store." We did not move or say anything. White waitresses working behind the lunch counters began to huddle while giving us that "you don't belong here" stare.
A little later, James Word, the manager of Woolworth, came and read a prepared statement that in effect said Woolworth reserves the right to refuse to serve anyone. He also gave us directions to the colored lunch counter. We still did not move. I told Mr. Word that we were here for service. He would later tell several of us that he was experiencing his first sit-in demonstration. I often wondered if he knew we were too. He gave the order to close the lunch counter.
We continued to sit. Just in case Woolworth store officials decided to re-open the lunch counter, we had agreed to sit through the entire lunch period. A crowd of white onlookers began to assemble and show displeasure by shouting tasty morsels of racial epithets. They obviously blamed us for Woolworth's decision to close the lunch counter.
After several sit-ins, we developed a friendship of sorts with Woolworth manager James Word. He would recognize us when we returned. He would tell the late George Tutson, a Youth Council member, and a student at Morris Brown College, that if left to him, he would have integrated the lunch counters in a split second. However, managing a store in the South obligated him and Woolworth to follow the dictates of segregation laws and policies. Racial slurs continued to flow from the hostile crowd.
We were prepared for most reactions from the white crowd, such as being stuck with pins and other sharp objects, unnoticed kicks to our lower legs, and being pushed by the assembled white crowd of males and females as we left the lunch counter. One woman blocked my path and stepped on my foot, heel first. It did not matter. I kept walking out of the store, trying not to turn toward the crowd or acknowledge the immediate pain. A woman's shoe heel makes an impression on the toe of your shoe, and on your foot. It is also quite painful.
Though we left the lunch counter separately, we all had similar rough encounters with the white crowd. It did not take us long to walk back to Laura Street Presbyterian Church Youth Center, though we occasionally looked over our shoulders to see if anyone was following.
I anxiously looked through my Sunday black-star edition of the Florida Times-Union to see how the press would cover this first sit-in.
Nothing about the sit-ins made the front-page — not a shock, at least to me. Surely, they would not carry the story in "News for about the Colored People of Jacksonville." They did not. In fact, the Times-Union did not report anything about the sit-in anywhere in the paper. Although sit-in demonstrations were significant news, lack of local coverage was an indication of what we could expect.
Richard Parker came to the Laura Street Presbyterian Church Youth Center one summer day in 1960 and asked to participate in the Jacksonville Youth Council lunch counter demonstrations. He had read about the demonstrations in a Tallahassee newspaper, he said, and wanted to aid the cause. Richard Parker, a college student at Florida State University, happened to be the first white person who asked to join the sit-in demonstrations in Jacksonville.
Though sit-in demonstrations raised the consciousness of the nation about the evils of racism and discrimination, National NAACP headquarters cautioned NAACP Youth Councils and NAACP College Chapters about would-be demonstrators about whom we knew very little. F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover certainly wanted to tag the NAACP as subversive, Communist, or worse. For those reasons, we were leery of Parker at first. We were all mindful and fearful that someone could come to undermine the sit-ins.
Many whites and the national press in this country felt that direct-action activities such as sit-in demonstrations would undermine the country, and labeled them as Communist-inspired or subversive, or both. Racists already had a clear view of the NAACP. With that backdrop, the NAACP used tremendous caution to ensure no one joined the organization or participated in direct action demonstrations without some preliminary checking. After talking with Parker and doing what we considered a diligent background check, we were convinced he was not a Communist and legitimately wanted to participate in the sit-ins.
At no time during any of the Woolworth's sit-in demonstrations did we see police from the City of Jacksonville's police department or patrol officers from the Duval County Sheriff's Department. Despite the constant potential for racial confrontation, and with law enforcement officials' penchant for undercover intelligence during that era, the Jacksonville's police department and the Duval County Sheriff's Office were invisible.
Because of the absence of law-enforcement protection, adults from the NAACP always monitored the sit-ins. We called them "trouble-spotters." We did not have to signal them or say anything. They recognized threats.
When the racial epithet-spewing crowd began to gather alongside the construction workers, our trouble-spotters got in touch with the NAACP office. They knew someone had to do something.
Several members of the "Boomerangs" walked single-file into Woolworth's in a very matter-of-fact fashion and came to the white lunch counter where Parker sat.
The Boomerangs made their way through the crowd of hate mongers and construction workers, and immediately stood behind Parker. We told Parker to go with them, but he insisted he did not want to go. Several of the Boomerangs physically picked him up off the lunch counter seat and eventually persuaded him.
They then formed a circle around him and walked him out of Woolworth onto Hogan Street and away from the store.
As they walked Parker away from danger, many in the Woolworth crowd of whites followed.
The Boomerangs walked Parker down Hogan Street, turning left on Ashley Street. The crowd continued to follow.
When the Boomerangs and Parker got to Clay Street and Ashley Street, which is one block from Broad Street and Ashley Street, they sent Parker on with a couple of Boomerang members and then turned to invite the crowd to continue. The crowd stopped and turned back. The Boomerangs then walked Parker to the Laura Street Presbyterian Church Youth Center. When we later met with Parker, we agreed he would not sit in for a while. It would be an interesting period before we saw Parker again.
Today, most juvenile delinquent experts would call the "Boomerangs" gang members. After all, they fit all the gang profiles — Black males who lived in a housing project (the Joseph Blodgett Housing project). Arrested for minor fighting skirmishes, they hung out at the Wilder Recreation Park Center in Jacksonville. However, you would not consider the Boomerangs a gang in the traditional sense. They did not have colors, did not carry guns, and did not traffic in drugs as far as anyone could determine. They never resorted to gratuitous violence, though they did fight rivals "gangs". You would want any one of them to have your back. They also had tremendous respect for Mr. Pearson and the Youth Council.
The name "Boomerang" resulted from an incident in a local drugstore when some of the Boomerangs "requisitioned" items from the store. Because of the store's layout, you entered one way and exited a separate way. Boomerangs would come into the store and leave quickly. A white employee declared, "They keep coming back just like a boomerang." The name stuck. Of course, the Youth Council never condoned or supported any illegal or violent activity by the Boomerangs.
The decorum of all sit-in demonstrations required a steadfast discipline — passive, non-violent resistance. It characterized the civil rights movement in the late fifties and the early sixties. Boomerangs did not join the Youth Council during the sit-ins, though some wanted to join. They made if perfectly clear they could never be a part of a non-violent demonstration. As one Boomerang told me, "If a 'cracker' hits me, I'm going to try and kill him."
As drastic, dramatic and incredulous as it sounds, I believe, as do other Youth Council members, that those construction workers would have tried to lynch Richard Charles Parker that day. We also believe that the Boomerangs saved Parker's life.
Mr. Pearson received several calls on the morning of August 27, 1960 about very suspicious and unsettling activities in Hemming Park. He contacted Arnett Girardeau and Ulysses Beatty and asked them to ride with him downtown to Hemming Park.
"As we approached Hemming Park," Girardeau recalled, "we saw several white men wearing Confederate uniforms. Other whites walked around Hemming Park carrying ax handles with Confederate battle flags taped to them. A sign taped to a delivery-type van parked at the Duval and Hogan Streets corner of Hemming Park read, 'Free Ax Handles.' Small fence rails with shrubbery bordered that section of Hemming Park. [As we drove by,] we could see bundles of ax handles in the shrubbery. ... No one attempted to conceal them. We also saw three police[men] separately riding three-wheel police motorcycles. We watched as the police talked to the men dressed in Confederate uniforms. It appeared they were simply having a conversation. Certainly, [the police] were not questioning [the men]. As we circled Hemming Park, the police left."
We arrived at the Youth Center the morning of August 27, 1960 unaware of the Hemming Park activities. We opened our meetings with our usual prayer, not expecting this morning to be any different from other mornings. We sang our usual songs, including "We Shall Overcome." Though our meetings became serious after we started the sit-in demonstrations, this meeting had a more serious bent.
Mr. Pearson explained to us what he, Girardeau, and Beatty saw that morning at Hemming Park. He described the white men wearing Confederate uniforms, and the other white men with Confederate flags taped to ax handles. He told us about the free ax handles sign and warned, "There could be trouble today." He tried to contact Sheriff Dale Carson to express his concerns, but didn't reach him. Mr. Pearson said he would understand if any Youth Council members decided they did not want to demonstrate that day. We openly discussed our plan of action that day, and whether we would sit in. On the heels of the situation with Parker, we figured we would be facing the Ku Klux Klan in Hemming Park.
The W. T. Grant Department store had a lunch counter, though it was not nearly as large as the one at Woolworth. Like Woolworth's, Grant's also had a "colored lunch counter." When we walked into Grant's, I remember seeing four police officers directing traffic at the corner of Main and Adams-or so it appeared to me.
After we sat at Grant's white lunch counter, store officials summarily closed and turned out the lights — every one of usual and customary.
When we came out of Grant's, and turned west on Adams, we could see in the distance a mob of whites running toward us. As the mob got closer, it became obvious they were swinging ax handles and baseball bats. In a surreal scene, they swung those ax handles and baseball bats at every Black they saw. It is amazing what the mind's eye captures during tense split-seconds of confrontation. I remember seeing a television reporter or a camera operator from local television station Channel 12 on top of a car taking pictures — until someone knocked him off the car with an ax handle.
Employees of stores along the block started locking store doors. If you were inside a store, you stayed inside; if you were outside a store, you could not get in. We had tried to prepare for most scenarios during sit-in demonstrations, but nothing prepared us for an attack as vicious as this. Although we would laugh later about trying to be cool while looking at those attacking us with ax handles and baseball bats, surviving the onslaught became our primary concern. Most people have held or felt a baseball bat, but not an ax handle. Ax handles usually are as heavy as a baseball bat and can inflict as much damage. They are made of solid wood sturdy enough to hold an ax, and you never forget its look in the hands of someone trying to maim you.
All of us started running and trying to protect ourselves, but Black downtown shoppers were simply no match for those wielding the baseball bats and ax handles. Some fought as best they could, but most simply tried to run for safety.
Charlie played high school football at Northwestern and, given his size could have ably defended himself in a fair fight. But Charlie became another victim of the racial attacks in downtown Jacksonville that day. The attack on Charlie, it so happened, occurred SWB (Shopping While Black). He was not a member of the Youth Council and was not "sitting in" that day. He would later tell me that as he walked downtown, "this white guy" ran toward him and took a swing at him with an ax handle. When Charlie started to defend and protect himself, more whites came to hit him with ax handles. The attacks against Charlie and the other Blacks that day were vicious and cowardly.
As for me, I ran to Main Street first, which is away from the mob, and then north on Main Street to wherever I thought I could find safety. We were on our own — we had no police protection. All law enforcement officers had disappeared.
Afterwards, we came to believe that the Jacksonville Police Department and the Duval County Sheriff's Department knew in advance that racial violence would occur on August 27, 1960.
As I ran down Main Street, I was picked up by a woman who drove me to the Youth Center. To this day, I cannot remember her face, although Mrs. I. E. "Mama" Williams would later tell me she had been the one to pick me up. I just remember the person asking me if I was hurt and telling me she was a member of the NAACP.
Forty years later, I would find out how much Jacksonville and Duval County law enforcement knew about what would happen that day. I met Clarence Sears, an FBI informant with the Ku Klux Klan during the period leading up to Ax Handle Saturday, at the 40th year Ax Handle Commemorative Anniversary Program at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church.
I did not know Clarence Sears at the time, but he painted a very descriptive timeline of the events leading to Ax Handle Saturday. His CI (Confidential Informant) nickname was Charlie.
Sears gave his report to his FBI manager, who in turn gave the report to Sheriff Dale Carson, or, to be absolutely accurate, put his report on the sheriff's desk. Supposedly, a police officer in the sheriff's office intercepted the report and gave it to the head Klansman, a so-called Cyclops. Sears said the report caused quite a commotion at the next Klan meeting. The Klan realized, according to Sears, that there was "a traitor in our midst," but never knew his identity. According to Sears, the Klan intended the attacks to spark a citywide racial riot. Sears went on to say the Klan met in the Mayflower Hotel the week of Ax Handle Saturday to map out a strategy. Sears also said he purchased some of the ax handles from Sears Department Store in downtown Jacksonville.
During the attacks on us, one could easily have imagined a chaotic scene at the Laura Street Presbyterian Street Youth Center, but Reverend Miller and Mr. Pearson kept everyone as calm as possible. Mrs. Williams put me out of the car at the Youth Center and said she would go out again to find other Youth Council members.
Parents of Youth Council members rushed to the Laura Street Presbyterian Church Youth Center. Unfounded rumors about the attacks downtown fueled fear and anxiety. We received reports of persons beaten to death, but they turned out not to be true; we also heard of shootings, which also were not true. If someone concocted a rumor, we heard it that afternoon. We briefed parents as much as possible on what had happened. Some Youth Council members had not returned to the Youth Center. Despite their obvious concern, not one parent said they regretted their son or daughter sitting in. They reiterated — sometimes emotionally — their support for the Youth Council and the sit-ins.
Word quickly spread to the Black community and Ashley Street about Youth Council members and Blacks beaten downtown. In a matter of minutes, it seemed, a "security force" of Blacks made their way to downtown Jacksonville to protect the Youth Council members and other Blacks downtown. Organized in part by the Boomerangs, the crowd moved from the Joseph Blodgett Homes project, and gathered support moving along Ashley Street. Leaving Ashley Street with substantially increased numbers, Blacks headed downtown.
When whites attacked Blacks that day, no law enforcement officials or law enforcement vehicles were visible anywhere in the downtown area. But as scores of Blacks later made their way to downtown Jacksonville to protect other Blacks and defend themselves where necessary, Jacksonville Police Department vehicles and Duval County Sheriff Department cars seemingly came from everywhere. They closed off downtown Jacksonville. The situation had quickly changed from no police or sheriff's officers to scores of law enforcement officials everywhere.
Reverend Wilbert Miller stood no more than five feet five inches tall, but he stood seven feet tall that Saturday when a Duval County Sheriff patrol officer tried to come onto the property of the Laura Street Presbyterian Church, ostensibly to "interrogate" some Youth Council members. The officers had no warrant, or even an explanation.
Exerting pastoral authority, Reverend Miller would not allow the patrol officer — or anyone, for that matter — talk with anybody on the Laura Street Presbyterian Church property. Emblazoned in my mind is the sight of Reverend Miller, with all of his five-foot-five-inch stature, looking up into the eyes of this patrol officer, who stood at least six feet tall, and telling him not to set one foot on the church's property. The patrol officer left.
Youth Council members, ministers, parents, community leaders, and other Blacks started arriving at the church and the Youth Center. Youth Council members who participated in the sit-in that morning were finally returning to the Youth Center.
When Reverend J. S. Johnson arrived, he immediately gathered everyone on the porch and sidewalk of the Youth Center. Reverend Johnson then offered one of the most stirring prayers I have ever heard. You do not judge a prayer or the person praying, but even at age 16, you know a mighty prayer when you hear it.
Reverend Johnson asked Youth Council members to understand that God was still in charge and would not allow anyone to "turn us around." God took us "to the hills and the valleys," he said, concluding with his famous line that the "die was cast." We sang "We Shall Overcome," and the tears started to flow.
As Mr. Pearson, Marjorie, I, and other Youth Council members left Laura Street Presbyterian Church later that afternoon, everything appeared to move in slow motion. Even the air seemed to hang heavy. For the first time in my life, I felt real tension. One of the Boomerangs came by and yelled, "Mr. Pearson, you and Rodney better put some black shoe polish on your face or something." We laughed. He might have been trying to be funny, or he might have been deadly serious. Being light-skinned that day would be a liability; he seemed to suggest.
Later, some Blacks and whites would blame Ax Handle Saturday on the Youth Council NAACP because we dared challenge apartheid, American-style by demonstrating at white lunch counters. If we had just tucked our tails between our legs and danced a few doo-dahs, things would be just fine — the racial peace and tranquility that Blacks and whites had grown to love so much in Jacksonville could still manifest itself in the community.
The paradox is so overwhelming. Here is a country based on the Christian ethic of loving your fellow man and embracing Jesus Christ. Here is a country, which primarily uses the teachings of Jesus Christ as the center of its religious life. Here is a country that on every Sunday morning reads countless biblical verses that speak of love. Yet, here is a country throwing those very teachings and its accompanying love out the window, violently attacking young Blacks for pursuing their God-given and constitutionally assured rights. Here is a country that blames those same Black young people for instigating the violence of which they were the victims.
Racial riots are ugly. They are community wars. They crystallize man's contempt for his fellow man based on skin color. Historically, race riots usually involve white Americans unilaterally exacting violence on Blacks. It is an obvious by-product of racism and blatant discrimination.
Re-printed from It was never
about a hot dog and a Coke by permission of author.]
Copyright © Rodney Hurst, 2010
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