Ax Handle Saturday is known as the turning point of the civil rights movement in Jacksonville. Organized by the NAACP youth council, a group of African American students held a sit-in at Woolworth’s and W.T. Grant’s. They sat at the “whites-only” counter and tried to order lunch, but were denied service.
Similar sit-ins had occurred in Jacksonville earlier in the month. Racial tensions were mounting. What was supposed to be a peaceful protest became a bloodbath. A mob of about 150 white men appeared in Hemming Park wielding ax handles and baseball bats.
"Whites were looking for any black. They would surround him, knock him down, kick him, whack the hell out of him,” said Stetson Kennedy, a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier.
Alton Yates, vice president of the youth council, was especially concerned about the youngest protesters. "I really did not think adults would attack children with baseball bats and ax handles," he said, noting that some protesters were as young as 13. "That was particularly unreal to me. It was an [sic] horrific thing to watch."
The Boomerangs, a local black gang, intervened to protect the young protesters. The Boomerangs supported the cause of the protest. However, they could not agree with the NAACP’s method of non-violence. They were not looking for a fight; they were trying to save those who couldn’t fight back.
One Boomerang member recalled, "We were out there trying to save a community. Everybody had to run; if you didn't, you wouldn't live."
It was only after the Boomerangs became involved that police started to take action. They began arresting mostly Boomerang members and those involved with the sit-in.
By the end of the day, 62 people had been arrested and 50 were injured.
Ax Handle Saturday was the rude awakening Jacksonville desperately needed. In the years following, downtown stores and restaurants began to desegregate. However, the events of August 27, 1960 were all but forgotten.
Ax Handle Saturday made national news, but was barely covered in Jacksonville. To this day, it is a historical event that goes almost completely unnoticed by locals. One of the darkest days in our city’s history has been swept under the rug.
In 2000, the Jacksonville Historical Society proposed the commemoration of Ax Handle Saturday. The idea led to controversy.
Those opposed to commemorating the event believed that the memory was too fresh and much too painful. Many people who lived through it don’t want to relive that pain.
Despite the hardships endured by those involved, the events of that violent day were crucial for the civil rights movement in Jacksonville.
By 2010, the controversy had come to an end. City Council decided to officially recognize Ax Handle Saturday. A plaque has been erected in Hemming Plaza, commemorating the event.
Monday, August 27, 2012 marks the 52nd Anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday. Much has changed in those 52 years. In 2011, Jacksonville elected Alvin Brown, its first African American mayor.
Former Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover, who ran for mayor in 2003, believes the election shows how far Jacksonville has come.
"Young people in this community are not so in tune with race, and they're looking at both candidates,” Glover said. “They're trying to select the best person to be mayor in this city, race notwithstanding. What we've done, we've not realized the huge changes sweeping not just Jacksonville but this country."