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'That was a bloody event' | Ax Handle Saturday was 60 years ago in Jacksonville, he was there

On August 27, 1960 White men passed out free ax handles in Hemming Park and a mob began beating black demonstrators.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s being called the largest civil rights demonstration in Jacksonville history.
An estimated 3,000 protesters thronged downtown Saturday, in a passionate but largely peaceful demonstration.

The last time the city saw large, multi-day street protests, was the 1960s. Those demonstrations were also marred by violence.

The current cycle of protest has given the principal players in the city’s original Civil Rights Movement reason to reflect.

Rodney Hurst was 16 the day of Jacksonville’s most notorious race riot – Ax Handle Saturday.

On August 27, 1960, after weeks of peaceful demonstrations protesting racial segregation, a violent backlash. White men passed out free ax handles in Hemming Park and a mob began beating black demonstrators.

“That was a bloody event,” Hurst said. “They were swinging at and beating any black person downtown.”

Hurst sees echoes of that day in the police killings that sparked the current movement.   

“The kind of evil I saw then, I see it now," he said. "It’s no different from what I'm seeing now.”

He also doesn’t see much change in the city’s leadership on issues of race. “We didn’t do it back then when the mayor was Haydon Burns, and we’re not doing it now with Mayor Curry.

Civil Rights activist Alton Yates also sees the persistence of problems from 60 years ago.

“We thought we would not see any of this anymore, that things would begin to heal, that our community would heal, that people would begin to treat others the way they wanted to be treated," he said. "Unfortunately, it just hasn’t worked out that way just yet.”

Yates was on the receiving end of violence that August Saturday, 60 years ago. But like the leaders of his movement, he embraced nonviolence – and urges those in the current movement do the same.

“There is still hope but I think that hope comes on the heels of peaceful – peaceful – nonviolent protest,” he said.

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