Editorial Board: An apology for failing to adequately cover Ax Handle Saturday

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The Florida Times-Union Editorial Board
The Times-Union and Journal building in1964 at the corner of Pearl and Adams Streets.

On Saturday, Aug. 13, 1960, members of Jacksonville's NAACP Youth Council, mentored by Rutledge Pearson, sat at the segregated Woolworth's lunch counter near Hemming Park, the current site of the federal courthouse.

This was part of a wave of sit-ins by young Black men that began in February of 1960 in Greensboro, N.C.    

Rodney Hurst — then president of the local NAACP Youth Council who would later write the definitive account in his book titled, "It was never about a hot dog and a Coke!" ("It was about human dignity and respect") — "anxiously" looked through the Sunday Times-Union for coverage of the demonstration that Aug. 13.

More:Ax Handle Saturday: The segregated lunch counters are gone, but the 'Jacksonville Story' continues

In those days there was a segregated "black star" edition for the city’s Black readers. He found nothing.

The Florida Star, the newspaper for Jacksonville's Black community, wrote an editorial comparing the suppressed news coverage to the practices of a communist dictatorship.

"The sit-in demonstrations have been treated as news — big news — in virtually every section of the country wherever they have occurred," the Florida Star editorial stated, "for the simple reason that the purpose for which they were designed has a significant bearing upon civilization and our social and economic structure."

Two weeks later, on Saturday, Aug. 27, 1960, as young Black people staged sit-ins in the W.T. Grant department lunch counter near Hemming Park, a band of white racists attacked them, some armed with clubs made from ax handles.

It was a significant news event. And it occurred about three blocks from the newspaper's offices at Adams and Pearl streets.

Yet, 60 years ago, management at The Florida Times-Union didn’t cover the historic incident later known as Ax Handle Saturday in any depth.

Because of this bad decision, newspaper readers elsewhere in the nation had more information on the sit-ins than readers of Jacksonville's premier newspaper.

Imagine a doctor's office refusing to treat patients.

Imagine a fire station refusing to answer a call.

The Florida Times-Union committed an act of journalistic malpractice so egregious that it deserves a formal apology.

Yes, 60 years is a long time to wait for an apology.

The Times-Union was founded as the Union newspaper in 1864. An institution of this importance has a long memory.

Therefore, an apology is important to the Black community that deserved full and fair coverage. It is important to the wider community that needed to learn about the sit-ins and the reasons for them and about the attacks on Black residents. And it's important to current and former members of the Times-Union who live with the shame.

Alton Yates, one of the leaders of the sit-ins, said an apology is appropriate. He emphasized that the NAACP Youth Council that was sitting in was a faith-based organization, whose members met at local churches and prayed before their sit-ins. Therefore, a sincere apology followed by forgiveness is in order, he said.

"I would appreciate it," Yates said.

Marcella Washington, a Black political scientistand academic, said an apology would be useful if the Times-Union continues to report on racial disparities and discrimination in Jacksonville.

Nat Glover, Florida's first Black sheriff since Reconstruction, was 17 and working at Morrison's Cafeteria near the sit-ins when Ax Handle Saturday occurred. Glover, who was struck, asked a police officer for protection and was told to get out of town "before they kill you." Glover said an apology is appropriate.

Tony Hill, the former state senator and key leader of the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame, said in an email, "With this statement we can all move forward and work together as one Jacksonville."

Ax Handle Saturday was covered in the New York Times and Time Magazine, among many other publications.

But in the Times-Union that Sunday in 1960, readers found one brief story on Page 15, "Tight Security Lid is Clamped on City after Racial Strife." The story referred to arrests of 33 Black people and nine white people without noting that Blacks in the community had mobilized to protect the youth against the white mob. As for “racial strife,” that was a euphemism for a white riot. As for “tight security,” it may have occurred later, but it was nowhere to be found that Saturday.

The Times-Union story was so incomplete that it was a distortion of the actual events.

Stetson Kennedy, a white civil rights leader who had infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, covered Ax Handle Saturday for the Pittsburgh Courier, a renowned Black newspaper.

"I suppose a society likes to cover up its evil-doing," he said.

Why would the Times-Union not adequately cover both the sit-ins and the civil unrest that followed? These were incredible stories of human courage by teenagers who were willing to risk their safety for the cause of justice. And it was a story of police failing to protect the demonstrators.

Those in charge of the Times-Union then are no longer alive.

For most of the Twentieth Century, the Times-Union was owned by a railroad, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which became Seaboard Coastline Railroad, which later became CSX.

So the newspaper’s owners reflected the city’s business interests even more than most metro newspapers of the day.

Therefore, covering the demonstrations and unrest could have been viewed as airing your dirty laundry.

But suppressing coverage is not journalism.

In fact, even “the black star edition” was missing real coverage of the sit-ins and the violence that followed.

But that wasn’t the only instance in which the Times-Union failed to cover the story. The Times-Union reviewed microfilm around the anniversaries of Ax Handle Saturday: the fifth, 10th, 20th, 25th, 30th, 40th and 50th anniversaries. It's standard journalism practice to write about important historic events on those round-numbered anniversaries.

We could find no coverage until the 40th anniversary.

There was a story in 2002, 42 years later, when a marker was placed at Hemming Park to commemorate the event. Even then, some in the community resisted this gesture because it "revives old hurts," the Times-Union reported.

The first time this newspaper provided extensive coverage worthy of the event was for the 50th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday in 2010. That included a wealth of stories, columns and oral histories.

It also included an opinion column by Mark Woods, who interviewed several former Times-Union staffers from 1960 who expressed their pain at not being allowed to cover the event.

"We felt dirty as journalists because we couldn't do our jobs," said Bob McGinty, a Times-Union copy editor and city editor.

The larger community addressed longstanding issues of disparities in nearly all walks of life in 2002 when a local think tank, Jacksonville Community Council, Inc., produced a report titled "Beyond the Talk: Improving Race Relations."

The report named local news media as a significant part of both the problem and the solution.

By that time, the Times-Union was delving regularly into issues involving race relations. But the report called for more diverse representation on the Times-Union Editorial Board, which consisted of five white men at the time.

In 2008, Tonyaa Weathersbee, a Jacksonville native and a Black opinion columnist, was added to the Editorial Board by then-Editor Frank Denton.

When Weathersbee left full-time employment to pursue a master's degree at the University of Florida, the Editorial Board reverted to all white men.

So the Times-Union in 2012 began adding citizen members to the Editorial Board.

As Editorial Page Editor Mike Clark wrote at the time, "We could use more diversity, defined broadly as a matter of age, race, sex and expertise."

The first group of citizen members included a Black female college student, a white woman with political and civic leadership experience and a Black male urban planner and writer.

In the intervening years, there have been 18 groups of citizen members, 93 total, with 49 women and 34 Black and Hispanic minorities. And Editorial Page staffers in recent years included a part-time white female college professor and a full-time Black editorial writer.

As staff reductions occurred — Clark is the only full-time Editorial Board employee now — citizen members have taken on increasing importance.

The newsroom has also lacked diversity in race and gender. In 2001, 88 percent of journalists in the newsroom were white and about 71 percent were male. Efforts were made to build a more diverse newsroom. But with recent reductions of dozens of positions in our newsroom, it has left us with a staff of only one Black journalist and one Asian journalist (out of 29 positions in the newsroom) and seven women, including Editor Mary Kelli Palka, the first woman to hold the position at the Times-Union.

While the Times-Union newsroom has only been able to hire two journalists since the summer of 2017, it continues to seek partnership opportunities with local and outside groups with more diverse backgrounds to help inform its news coverage and editorials.

And this week, Times-Union parent company Gannett announced its commitment to increase diversity in its newsrooms to reflect the communities they cover by 2025.

A diverse workforce helps a newsroom provide more comprehensive coverage of a community. Indeed, our coverage in recent decades on news and editorial pages of issues about our community that is rich in diversity has helped shape public opinion, election outcomes and policy changes.

But we can’t say the same for what the Times-Union did 60 years ago.

The sit-ins in 1960 worked. Lunch counters in Jacksonville were integrated. It took courage from incredibly brave young people to do that. But it was no thanks to the Times-Union.

For failing to adequately cover the sit-ins and the unjust violence that sought to stop them, The Florida Times-Union apologizes.

We ask for forgiveness.