Communist Party USA

Rodney L. Hurst, Sr. was five years old when he entered kindergarten. At 11, he joined the Jacksonville, Florida Youth Council of the NAACP. Five years later, at 16, he took a bold step into the Civil Rights Movement as one of the leaders of peaceful “whites only” lunch counter sit-ins in downtown department stores. When the KKK had enough, hundreds of white men ended the protest, descending on downtown Jacksonville in a violent display. The episode was called “Ax Handle Saturday.” The killing of Trayvon Martin 10 years ago shone a light on racism in Florida. And in 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 68 hate groups (including KKK chapters) in Florida. This hate has a history, and it runs deep. Between 1900 and 1930, more black people per capita were lynched than in any other state. The Florida Historical Society notes that “a black person was almost twice as likely to be lynched in Florida as Georgia, and seven times more likely in Florida than in North Carolina.” Jacksonville was one of the most segregated cities in the South. This was the suffocating climate in August of 1960, when Rodney L. Hurst was catapulted into the cause. His junior high school history teacher, Rutledge Pearson, was his inspiration. In Hurst’s book, It Was Never about a Hot Dog and a Coke®!, he writes that his awakening started on the first day of class when Pearson gave instructions about the course text approved by the segregated Duval County School system. “The authors are Robert Johnson and Martin Richards. Published in 1953, it has 352 pages. LEAVE IT HOME!” (Pearson qtd. in Hurst, p. 28). Pearson was determined that revisionist history had no place in his classroom. The NAACP was the heart of the civil rights movement in Jacksonville, and Hurst was in the center of it all. With Hurst’s leadership, the Jacksonville Youth Council of the NAACP embarked on a campaign of peaceful protest, organizing Sunday appearances at the services of whites-only churches, boycotts of specific businesses (called “selective buying programs” to avoid legal challenges), and, of course, the lunch-counter sit-ins (153). According to Hurst’s personal account of Ax Handle Saturday, his group of teenagers targeted five downtown department stores including Woolworth’s, W.T. Grant, Kress, and McCrory’s. These stores, according to Hurst, were among the “vestiges of segregation that openly insulted Blacks daily” by accepting the money of a Black shopper at one counter but refusing at another — specifically the “whites only” lunch counter — 84 seats in an area enjoying bright windows (53). Black shoppers could eat lunch only if they walked to the very back of the store to the “Colored lunch counter” — 15 seats and no windows. At the time, demonstrators in more than 100 cities across the country were staging lunch counter sit-ins. Many department stores dealt with lunch counter sit-ins by shutting down service. The result was not only lost revenue from white lunch-goers, but also from having to throw out already-cooked food and fresh food that couldn’t be stored. As Hurst writes, “Human dignity and respect would be our fundamental focus, along with making segregation extremely expensive” (55). Students — mostly from junior and senior highs — had been staging protests in department store lunch counters for a couple of weeks. In small groups and dressed in their “Sunday best,” the students sat at “whites only” counters. They were polite. They were well-behaved. And they didn’t react to the threats, taunts, and slurs hurled at them by agitated white people demanding that they leave. Some students were stuck with…

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Rodney L. Hurst and the Florida lunch-counter sit-ins