Trump Administration Adds James Weldon Johnson Park in Jacksonville to the African American Civil Rights Network

Last edited 06/27/2023

Date: Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt issued a proclamation designating James Weldon Johnson Park in Jacksonville, Florida, which was the site of Ax Handle Saturday, to be a part of the African American Civil Rights Network (AACRN).

“On this 60th anniversary of the tragic events in Jacksonville, it is my honor to designate the site of Ax Handle Saturday as the 31st addition to the African American Civil Rights Network,” said Secretary Bernhardt. “President Trump enacted the American Civil Rights Network legislation to tell the complete and often painful story of the struggle for civil rights to foster healing, tolerance and understanding among all Americans.”

"The long and complex history of the struggle for equal treatment includes many people and events, such as Ax Handle Saturday, when a peaceful lunch counter protest turned horrifically violent," said Counselor to the Secretary Margaret Everson, Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director of the National Park Service. "The African American Civil Rights Network, established by President Trump, provides opportunities to remember and commemorate the bravery and fortitude of people willing to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of a more perfect union."

“Sixty years ago this week, Jacksonville witnessed the worst of humanity,” said Senator Marco Rubio. “As we reflect on this day in history, I am pleased that the Trump Administration is designating James Weldon Johnson Park to be a part of the African American Civil Rights Network. James Weldon Johnson was a leader and an outspoken voice in the fight for equality for all Americans. He was a great Floridian, and it’s fitting that the park dedicated to his memory will be a place that we remember and honor the victims of the atrocities committed on Ax Handle Saturday.”

On the morning of Aug. 27, 1960, an interracial group of young people participated in a peaceful protest by sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in the W.J. Grant Department Store in downtown Jacksonville. Led by African American high school student Rodney Hurst and representing the Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the protest was inspired by the successes of the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina the previous month. The peaceful protesters faced strong opposition to their sit-in as they were verbally abused and spat on by other patrons. Once the store closed, the peaceful protesters were brutally attacked with baseball bats and wooden ax handles by members of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizen Council.

The mob attacked any Black person they saw the on the street. Although the victims begged for help, nearby police officers did not intervene. As the mob continued to James Weldon Johnson Park, Klan members began a coordinated attack on the peaceful protesters, beating them with ax handles and bats previously hidden in bushes around the park.

The failure of the police force to intervene early on, thus giving the mob more time to attack, is a chief cause of the violence that day, and led state NAACP leaders to converge on Jacksonville as they advised local officials on how to move forward to prevent retributive violence. The event was the most violent racial clash in the city before or since and inspired local activists to continue in their fight for civil rights.

The African American Civil Rights Network Act, signed into law by President Trump in January 2018, authorizes the National Park Service to coordinate and facilitate Federal and non-Federal activities to commemorate, honor, and interpret the history of the African American Civil Rights movement; the significance of the civil rights movement as a crucial element in the evolution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and the relevance of the African American Civil Rights movement in fostering the spirit of social justice and national reconciliation.

The AACRN includes properties, facilities, and programs related to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. With this addition, there are currently 31 resources in the AACRN, 18 of which are administered by the National Park Service, including Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, Pullman National Monument, and Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

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