Activists Reclaim Day in History Marker Notes Social Change

Article excerpt

Byline: Alliniece T. Andino, Times-Union staff writer

Alton Yates looked beyond the veiled plaque yesterday and pointed to an orange construction sign. A truck parked there 42 years ago, he said, carrying baseball bats and ax handles that were passed out to white hands.

More than 80 people gathered in Hemming Plaza yesterday to see a historical marker unveiled that points to what happened Aug. 27, 1960, and the changes in civil rights it inspired.

Yates was one of about 40 members of the NAACP who attended sit-in demonstrations at two store lunch counters in downtown Jacksonville that day. After the protests by children and young adults, 150 white men chased the protesters and attacked them with bats and ax handles.

The day became known as Ax Handle Saturday. It is cited by many as the most pivotal event in Jacksonville's own transition from segregation to integration.

Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society, said the plaque will teach future generations about the historic day and its greater ramifications.

A portion of the statement on the marker reads: "It awakened many to the seriousness of the African-American community's demand for equal rights, equal opportunities, human dignity and respect and inspired further resolve in supporters to accomplish these goals."

Within weeks of the melee, interracial committees met to discuss integration. Within the decade, the city's lunch counters, schools, parks, public water fountains and other accommodations were no longer segregated.

But the plaque symbolizes something more heartfelt for Rodney Hurst, who was a 16-year-old demonstrator at the time.

"It's a dedication to the bravery of the people who risked their lives," he said with a commanding voice that rose above the cars passing by a few feet away. "Back then, it was not easy to stand up for what you believe in."

Hurst described parents who were afraid for their children but let them demonstrate anyway. …