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Criminal Justice

The Racist Attack That Roiled Black Jacksonville Decades Before the Dollar General Shooting

More than six decades before a racist attacker gunned down three Black people at a dollar store, a white mob in Jacksonville executed Ax Handle Saturday.

Church members at St. Paul A.M.E. Church pray with four Edward Waters University students (center) at a prayer service Sunday for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting in Jacksonville, Florida. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

The city of Jacksonville, Florida, is reeling from the racist killing of three Black people at a Dollar General on Saturday, after a white gunman targeted a historically Black neighborhood with weapons emblazoned with swastikas, authorities said.

This weekend was already a notorious one for Black Jacksonville, falling on the 63rd anniversary of one of the bloodiest instances of racist violence in the city’s history.

It was August 27, 1960, and the NAACP Youth Council was leading a demonstration in downtown Jacksonville. The young protesters had staged a sit-in at the whites-only lunch counter at the W.T. Grant department store to direct attention to the racial segregation that Black people across the South were facing.

Instead of serving the Black customers, store officials turned off the lights and closed up, sending the protesters outside. Klansmen were among the mob that was waiting with ax handles and baseball bats.

“A swing, a sound, then red,” said Rodney Hurst, the then-16-year-old president of the youth council, in an interview with the Florida Times-Union in 2010. Those are some of the details he remembers of the assault, in which 200-some white men were involved.

The incident became known as “Ax Handle Saturday.”

Youth council Vice President Alton Yates, then 23 years old, went with other demonstrators to an F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store, where a mob descended on them.

“Men started beating us as we tried to get seated,” he told the Times-Union.

The attack marked a turn in the sit-in movement, according to Clayborne Carson, an emeritus history professor at Stanford University. Previously, the tactic had been met with spontaneous retaliation, not with coordinated brutality.

“As [the demonstrators] began to achieve some success in the upper South, then in the Deep South areas, resistance became more intense,” Carson, the founder of Stanford’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, told The Washington Post in 2020.

Now, more than six decades later, racist violence has seized Jacksonville again.

Just as the white mob in 1960 turned their violence on Black bystanders, the gunman behind Saturday’s attack indiscriminately targeted anyone with brown skin, authorities said.

“He targeted a certain group of people, and that’s Black people. That’s what he said he wanted to kill,” Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said at a press conference on Saturday. “Any member of that race, at that time, was in danger.”

The 21-year-old shooter was first spotted donning a tactical vest on the campus of Edward Waters University, Florida’s oldest HBCU, before he fled security officers and drove to the Dollar General less than a mile away.

After attacking Black shoppers there, he turned the gun on himself. 

The gunman “hated Black people” and left behind diatribes that laid out his “disgusting ideology of hate,” Waters said at the press conference. In his writings, the gunman also referenced an attack exactly five years earlier, when a 24-year-old shooter killed two people and injured several others during a video game tournament at a downtown waterfront center.

Authorities on Sunday identified the victims as 52-year-old Angela Michelle Carr, 19-year-old Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., and 29-year-old Jerrald Gallion.

Saturday’s attack occurred mere hours after thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Black Jacksonville native Marsha Dean Phelts was among the attendees in D.C., and she told the Associated Press that hearing about the shooting was a “death blow,” given Florida’s past and present treatment of Black people.

“We could not go to public parks and public beaches, unless you owned your own,” the 79-year-old said. “You did not have access to things that your taxes pay for.”

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