AX HANDLE SATURDAY ORAL HISTORIES; Serving His Country Was Just the Beginning Alton Yates the Airman Came Home to Fight Anew for Principles of Equality

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Byline: BRIDGET MURPHY

By fall 1959, Airman Alton Yates already had risked his life for science many times over.

But driving home from a New Mexico Air Force base, the 23-year-old Jacksonville native didn't expect to fear for it.

Yates had survived test rides on a high-speed rocket sled in a program to determine how the human body would travel in space. But he knew he couldn't live with what he experienced on his 1,700-mile drive home.

Ku Klux Klan billboards in Mississippi showed black people hanging from trees. Businesses would let him buy gas, but wouldn't seat him for a meal or let him use the restroom. He ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the whole way home.

"I decided on the way that when I did get home I was gonna work just as hard to change those conditions as I did to see that we were able to get a man safely into space," Yates, now 74, said in a recent interview.

Back in Jacksonville, Yates became vice president of NAACP's Youth Council. He helped organize civil rights demonstrations, and in August 1960, ended up in the middle of a civil rights clash that pitted white men with ax handles and baseball bats against unarmed black youths.

A week earlier, Yates had led a peaceful sit-in at the lunch counter at Woolworth's downtown. But that Aug. 27, plans for a sit-in in the same spot changed when Yates and others saw something in Hemming Park.

"There was a truck from a local hardware store and a group of men had gathered and they were passing out baseball bats and ax handles to these men," he said.

Sworn to non-violence, the young civil rights organizers knew they couldn't fight back if attacked. But Yates said they didn't think law enforcement agencies would stand by and watch it happen. History says they did.

From a local church youth center, Yates and others headed to the downtown W.T. Grant store for a sit-in. On the way, men with ax handles ran toward them and the group scattered. Yates ended up at Woolworth's with a group of seven or eight other young activists.

"Men started beating us as we tried to get seated," Yates remembered.

He suffered a head injury in the melee that later became known as Ax Handle Saturday. Looking back 50 years later, Yates said it was as if downtown Jacksonville came apart. Men, women and children with colored skin became assault targets, whether they were demonstrating or not.

"Just being there ... meant you were about to become a victim of a baseball bat or ax handle. It was awful," he said.

Yates said he escaped to another local church after a posse of young blacks known as the Boomerangs arrived from a nearby coffee shop and beat back the men wielding weapons. …