3 White reporters talk with Alton Yates and Rodney Hurst during the first sit-in demonstration, as other Black participants look on
Reporters talk with Alton Yates and Rodney Hurst during the first sit-in demonstration, August 13, 1960. Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Sr. Papers, Thomas G. Carpenter Library, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida.

Freedom Is Not Free : Ax Handle Saturday

Antonette Jones, Curator

This exhibit contains images of violence against Black adults and children.

In 1960, the civil rights movement intensified in north Florida. Beginning August 13, the NAACP Youth Council organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in downtown Jacksonville. They peacefully protested for two weeks. On August 27, white Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members armed with wooden ax handles attacked Black people in downtown Jacksonville. The violent event shook the city and shifted race relations.

Although often overlooked, Ax Handle Saturday is a significant part of Florida and American history that mirrors and expands the national civil rights movement. The legacies and fight for the racial equality of those who were beaten and oppressed that day live on.

Rutledge Pearson often told his students “freedom is not free.” Pearson was a civil rights leader, human rights activist, and the former history teacher that inspired Rodney L. Hurst to join the NAACP Youth Council.

His saying to us was, ‘Freedom is not free. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.’ 

Interview with Rodney L. Hurst, 2021. Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. Interview conducted by Antonette Jones. Hurst describes his experiences as a student in Rutledge Pearson’s class.

The Build Up

Peaceful Protests

Woolworth allowed Black people to shop in the store but maintained a white-only lunch counter. The hypocrisy of accepting money for goods but not allowing Black people to eat there led to peaceful sit-ins. On August 13, 1960, 82 members of the NAACP Youth Council organized their first sit-in protest at the Woolworth lunch counter. White lunch counter patrons spewed racial epithets at protesters and left the store, causing the owner to close the counter for the day.

newspaper clipping with headline Lunch Counter Strike Staged by Jax Youth
“Lunch Counter Sit-Ins Staged By Jax Youths” from the Florida Star, August 20, 1960 [microfilm] George A. Smathers Libraries.

Ku Klux Klan Meeting

The White Citizens Council met on August 16 and decided that the sit-ins in downtown Jacksonville would be “stopped at all costs.” Some White Citizens Council members were also Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members. At this time unbeknownst to them, Clarence Sears, an FBI informant, had infiltrated the Klan. On August 25, Sears met with an FBI agent at Confederate Park to warn them that the Jacksonville KKK planned an attack on Black residents in the area. Sears detailed that they were armed with ax handles and baseball bats with the goal of frightening Black people and maintaining the current racial hierarchy. The FBI relayed information about the attack to the local sheriff’s office. Accounts show the sheriff’s department did not act on the information and allowed the attacks to occur.

The NAACP Youth Council heard rumors about the planned attacks. In spite of the danger, they continued their plan for another sit-in at the W.T. Grant Department Store on Saturday, August 27.

Interview with Rodney L. Hurst, 2021. Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. Interview conducted by Antonette Jones. Hurst recounts the Ax Handle Saturday race riot.

Richard Parker

Richard Parker joins NAACP Youth Council meeting from the Florida Times Union, 1960 [microfilm] George A. Smathers Libraries.

Richard Parker, a white Florida State University student, joined the NAACP Youth Council and participated in the Jacksonville sit-ins. White residents criticized and threatened Parker for supporting the civil rights movement. They often referred to him as the “leader” of the sit-ins despite his negligible role. On August 25, 1960, a group of white men entered Woolworth during a sit-in protest with the intent of lynching Parker. The Boomerangs, a group of Black males, removed Parker from Woolworth for his protection.

Mapping Ax Handle Saturday

The Aftermath

“Racial Fury Over Sit-Ins” from Life Magazine, 1960.

Based on best estimates, Ax Handle Saturday and the resulting two nights of rioting led to over 62 arrests and 70 injuries. Of those arrested, 57 were Black, and 28 were white. Although white men planned and executed the violent attacks, a disproportionate number of Black people were arrested and sentenced. Eventually, Judge Santora charged 35 Black people and 8 white people with inciting a riot.

“Some Cases for the Riot and Remedies Needed” from the Jacksonville Florida Star, September 10, 1960 [microfilm] George A. Smathers Libraries.

Press Coverage

The Florida Times-Union, a popular white newspaper, mentioned the riot on page 15 of their August 28, 1960 issue under the headline “Tight Security Lid is Clamped on City after Racial Strife.” The events are otherwise never mentioned again. Both white and Black national newspapers, as well as local ones, criticized the Florida Times-Union for ignoring the riot.

On September 2, 1960, the Jacksonville Chronicle, a white newspaper notable for its appeal to KKK and White Citizen Council members, gave salutations to downtown businesses for resisting the sit-ins and blamed the governor for the racial violence.

By contrast, Black local and national newspaper coverage of Ax Handle Saturday included photos and detailed information about the race riot.

NAACP Response to the Attacks

The Jacksonville NAACP called a meeting on August 28 at the Presbyterian Church on Laura Street to discuss the previous day’s events. There they developed a set of demands they wanted from city Mayor Haydon Burns. One of the demands was the establishment of a bi-racial committee, which they hoped would facilitate a conversation between Black and white Jacksonville residents, allowing for understanding and cooperation.

The Klan calls a KlonKave

August 24, 1960 Memorandum detailing Jacksonville lunch counter sit-ins. NAACP Papers [microfilm], George A. Smathers Libraries.

On August 29, 1960, the Exalted Cyclops, a Klan leader, called a “KlonKave” meeting at the Tiger Hole. There, Cyclops informed everyone that “there [was] a rat in the Klavern,” but he did not know who it was. He also shared that a document with names and notes from the August 24th meeting was sent to Sheriff Carson but a Klan member who worked at the police station intercepted it. Decades later, Clarence Sears revealed he was the “rat.”

Police awareness of the document indicates that they knew of the planned racial violence beforehand. Activist, author, and KKK infiltrator, Stetson Kennedy has said that the Jacksonville police green-lit the race riot by their in-action.

Mayor Haydon Burns

On a local news program, Jacksonville mayor, Haydon Burns, stated that most of the parties involved in the riot were not from Jacksonville. Much like today, he blamed NAACP and KKK individuals from neighboring towns and states.

Days later, Mayor Burns met with the NAACP Youth Council at Old City Hall. He explained the lack of police presence on Ax Handle Saturday by relaying assignment locations of all police officers in and around the downtown area. The Youth Council asked several questions about police in-action during the riot but Burns only gave vague and insufficient answers. The Youth Council never met with Burns again.

Mayor Burns later denied the NAACP’s request for a bi-racial committee since he did not want to appear to support desegregation. 

Richard Parker Arrested

Police arrested Richard Parker a few days after the riot. Although he was not directly involved in the Ax Handle Saturday events, a judge charged him for inciting the riot and vagrancy. Parker received a 90-day jail sentence and $250 fine. While in a holding room between court and jail, police incorrectly informed inmates that Parker was the leader of the Youth Council. As a result of the false accusation, Adrian Imus attacked Parker. Imus’ violent attack broke Parker’s jaw and shattered his teeth. In order to heal his broken jaw, Parker had to have his mouth wired shut, rendering him unable to eat solid food. Although he was limited to a liquid-only diet, the jail often refused to give him a straw. Richard Parker lost approximately 25 pounds in 35 days. 

The NAACP was unaware of Parker’s arrest until local attorney, Earl Johnson received a tip that Parker was in jail. After seeing Parker injured and emaciated, Johnson made multiple appeals on the local and state level to get Parker out of jail. His appeals were denied.

Parker’s imprisonment and treatment eventually garnered national attention and negative publicity for the city of Jacksonville. To avoid the continued attention, officials released Parker after 60 days in jail.

Boycotts Planned by NAACP

Florida Star, September 17, 1960 [microfilm] George A. Smathers Libraries.

The NAACP launched a selective buying program to boycott downtown Jacksonville businesses. It was intentionally named a “program” to avoid potential legal trouble of referring to it as a boycott. The boycott and eventual return of lunch counter sit-ins, led to significant financial losses for downtown white businesses.

Under financial stress and after months of protests, downtown businesses compromised with the NAACP. The businesses agreed to de-segregate lunch counters if the NAACP stopped boycotts and sit-in demonstrations. The gradual change began April 5, 1961 and spanned two-weeks. To slowly acclimate white customers to Black diners, two Black individuals sat at the Woolworth lunch counter every day for a week. By the second week, all downtown Jacksonville lunch counters were desegregated.

Interview with Rodney L. Hurst, 2021. Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. Interview conducted by Antonette Jones. Hurst discusses how the Civil Rights Movement affected him.

A very special thanks to Rodney L. Hurst, Sr. who shared his time, knowledge, and experience as a young 1960 civil rights activist and the work of the Jacksonville NAACP Youth Council.

Additional Resources

Rodney L. Hurst. It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke! : a Personal Account of the 1960 Sit-in Demonstrations in Jacksonville, Florida and Ax Handle Saturday. WingSpan Press. 2008.

Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Sr. Papers, Thomas G. Carpenter Library, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida.

California State University San Marcos. “Racial Trauma, Resiliency, and Ally Resources.” 2021.

Ital Preservation. “The Necessity of Black Archiving: Information, Preservation, and Representation in Documenting our Legacy.” February 24, 2021.

Stetson Kennedy Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida

Papers of the NAACP [microfilm]. George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

Florida Times-Union Newspaper [microfilm]. George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

Florida Star Newspaper [microfilm]. George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

Sydney Trent. “Ax Handle Saturday: The Klan’s vicious attack on Black protesters in Florida 60 years ago.” Washington Post. August 27, 2020.

Christopher Hong and David Bauerlein. “City Council renames Hemming Park after James Weldon Johnson.” Florida Times-Union. August 12, 2020.

Exhibit Consultants

Carol McAuliffe, Associate Chair, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries

Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler, Exhibits Director, George A. Smathers Libraries

Jim Cusick, Curator, P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries

Bridget Bihm-Manuel, Florida History Coordinator, George A. Smathers Libraries

Stephanie Birch, African American Studies Librarian, George A. Smathers Libraries

Twanna Hodge, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Librarian, George A. Smathers Libraries

Elizabeth H. Bemis, Curatorial Assistant, Panama Canal Museum Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries

Black woman wearing NAACP shirt smiles at the camera

About the Curator

Antonette Jones is a History and Criminology major with a minor in African American Studies at the University of Florida (UF). A member of the UF chapter of the NAACP Executive Board and the Chapter’s Planning and Research Chair, Jones was awarded a Smathers Libraries Undergraduate Fellowship in Fall 2021; her senior year. With her passion for the study of history and social issues, Jones developed the idea for an exhibit on Ax Handle Saturday. Her main goal of the project is to educate others on Black experiences and race relations that are often lost or overlooked in American History. Jones hopes to continue to educate herself and others about social issues as she pursues a law degree after graduation.

“My time as an undergraduate fellow is one of my greatest learning opportunities. With the help and support of the staff at Smathers Libraries, I was able to make my dream of creating an exhibit come to fruition. I discovered a new passion for research and exhibit curating that I intend to pursue in the future. This fellowship has been the most amazing experience and I am grateful for Smathers Libraries for believing in my project.”

About the Project

The Smathers Libraries Undergraduate Student Fellowship is designed to connect current student employees with opportunities to learn more about the work of academic libraries while enhancing their personal skills, knowledge, and abilities. This undergraduate fellowship program has been created to offer opportunities to expose students, including those from under-represented groups, to career opportunities in academic and research libraries – with the goal of contributing to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. 

The paid fellowships provide experiential learning opportunities that take place within library units and are individualized to reflect the interests and aspirations of the awardee student. The program expects that the fellowships will take students outside of their current work area.

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