60th anniversary Ax Handle Massacre commemorative event

On Thursday, August 27, 2020 at 6 PM, Charlotte County Democrats will commemorate Ax Handle Saturday, the day in 1960 when more than 200 Whites with baseball bats and ax handles attacked 34 Black NAACP Youth Council members in Jacksonville, Florida.  Register for this free Zoom virtual event here

By James Abraham, Charlotte County Dems guest writer

After four police officers were arrested in connection with the death of Minnesota resident George Floyd, I recall several Whites asking why the protests had not stopped. In their minds, the sole aim of the protesters was the arrest of the men responsible for killing Floyd under the color of law. Rodney Hurst’s book, “It Was Never About a Hot Dog and Coke,” speaks to the same mindset.

On a warm summer day in August of 1960, civics class came alive for Hurst with the punctuation of a baseball bat. As a Black teenager, he escaped an angry White mob that rampaged through Jacksonville streets because he and others dared to integrate a lunch counter.

“At age eleven, I joined the Jacksonville Youth Council National Association of Colored People (NAACP) at the invitation of Rutledge Henry Pearson, the Youth Council’s Advisor and my eighth grade American History class instructor,” he writes. “At age 15, I would become president of the Youth Council NAACP. By the hundreds, young Blacks in Jacksonville responded to the call of Mr. Pearson to fight racism and segregation through this extraordinary organization.”

Hurst described a children’s crusade of bright-eyed, fresh-faced, high-minded young people. Many of whom were the children of black GIs who had just helped win a war against fascism and fear. And then the war came home to Hurst.

“All of a sudden I saw all of these White people with ax handles and baseball bats running toward me,” he recalled of the day he became a man.

Hurst was only a teenager on Ax Handle Saturday, an event that will be commemorated across the state August 27, 2020, including a virtual program sponsored by the Charlotte County Democrats on that same day. He says that in these days and times, stories like his take on added relevance.

“The peaceful protests of teenagers who dared to challenge segregated White lunch counters is not a myth or an urban legend,” Hurst writes. “Nor is the attack by more than 200 Whites with baseball bats and ax handles on 34 Black NAACP Youth Council members on August 27, 1960.”

Hurst writes that sit-ins and lunch counter-demonstrations were about more than folks wanting fries with that. But sometimes Black people did venture into all-White facilities for simple amenities like a Coke, a hot dog, or a seat on a bus after a long, hard day of work. Just ask Rosa Parks. Her refusal to give up her seat to a White patron on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus sparked that city’s bus boycott. The successful challenge to the denial of basic human liberties propelled Martin Luther King to national fame and launched what we know as the Civil Rights Movement. And five years later, Hurst was in the thick of it.

“If segregation sought to remind Blacks of their perceived second-class citizenship in this country, then segregated lunch counters represented visible vestiges that served up daily insults,” he said. “The time finally came when the Youth Council NAACP simply said, ‘enough is enough.’ Disregarding the personal physical peril, members of the Jacksonville Youth Council NAACP made the decision to confront Jacksonville’s segregated policies and its accompanying Jim Crow laws.”

A hot dog and a Coke. Is it too hard to understand those basic human delights and the concomitant craving for either item? Neither is good for you but both taste good. That’s human nature, not racial nature. Maybe that’s why too many White people really believe a Black man would risk injury just for a Coke and a hot dog. Or maybe they just don’t want to admit how their silence is complicity in a daily assault on human dignity. They’re the same people who look at Kaepernick kneeling and cry traitor instead of trying to understand his message. They’re the folks who claim Black victims of police murder should have not resisted, not run, stood still, or complied. They’re the same folks who believe black people riot to get new televisions. And they’ll never understand why Black people and allies are still marching today for just a drop of basic human dignity, just a sip of that Coke doled out by the bucketful to other Americans every single day.

Hurst will be sharing his story Thursday, August 27th from 6 to 7:30 p.m. As part of the commemoration, we will hear stirring music from vocalist Celene Evans Galvan and celebrate the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from August 28, 1963. 

To participate in this free Zoom virtual event, please register at https://www.mobilize.us/charlottecountydec/event/293415/. For more information, contact Charlotte County Democrats at (941) 764-8440.