Jacksonville's history complicates Republican convention
By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN | Associated Press | Published: June 12, 2020
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When Republicans descend on Jacksonville, Florida, to officially renominate President Donald Trump for a second term, it will be a well-choreographed affair that will unfold against the backdrop of a military town, a bastion of conservatism and a must-win battleground state.
When he accepts his party’s nomination in late August for another White House bid, the president will be doing so amid the political and racial divisions deeply ingrained in his host city.
“I think Jacksonville will take a lot of people by surprise in its diversity. But this is a complicated city," said Alan Bliss, the chief executive officer of the Jacksonville Historical Society.
“I think it’s been seen as inflexibly and uncritically conservative," he said. “Jacksonville has been seen as having clung uncritically and inflexibly to its ideas of its past.”
It is a place still coming to terms with its Southern heritage while trying to become a more cosmopolitan place in the shadows of glitzier Miami, with its world-famous beaches, and better-known Orlando, home to Disney World and Universal studios.
The city's sprawling metropolitan region is home to 1.5 million Floridians, nearly a third of them black and about a tenth Latino. It lies just south of Florida's border with Georgia, and about 290 miles (about 467 kilometers) north of the president's Mar-a-Lago compound in Palm Beach.
The Republican National Committee picked Jacksonville for the political spectacle after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, wouldn’t give in to the president’s insistence that large gathering be held without social distancing measures. On Friday, Florida announced its highest one-day spike in COVID-19 cases — with 1,900 new cases the day before — but officials said they will take necessary precautions during the August convention.
The city, which openly campaigned for the right to host the president and the political convention, had to overcome concerns that it could host a major event. When the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2005, it had to use cruise ships as floating hotels to expand its inventory of rooms.
Routine convention business will still be held in Charlotte, but splashier events will take place in Jacksonville, one of Florida’s largest cities best known for its professional football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
It is home to one of the country's most important seaports, as well as the largest Navy base in the Southeast.
Jacksonville has long been known as a bastion of conservatism, but in recent years it has become more diverse politically. While it remains a Republican stronghold, it’s not always as reliable as it once was.
In 2011, Jacksonville elected its first black mayor, a Democrat. Five years later, Trump narrowly won Duval County. But two years ago, black Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum got more of the county’s votes than now-Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close Trump ally.
“Jacksonville has made a few strides, but Jacksonville still has not shown that it wants to deal with some of its problems, especially the race problems it needs to deal with," said Rodney Hurst, 76.
Sixty years ago, Hurst was part of a group of young black men and women who had just dispersed from a peaceful protest at a downtown lunch counter when a mob of whites began indiscriminately clubbing African Americans in downtown Jacksonville. The day is now remembered as Ax Handle Saturday.
“They swung at me, and I had no choice but to run,” recalled Hurst, who was 16 when the mob came charging at him with clubs.
The anniversary of that day will be remembered in a public square across City Hall — on the same day as the president’s Aug. 27 made-for-television address.
The commemoration will be held a mile away from the convention, in a park named for Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming, after he donated a towering Confederate monument in the park in 1898. Earlier this week, the city removed the monument in the cloak of darkness amid protests across the country decrying racism and deadly police force against blacks.
The city’s mayor, Lenny Curry, vowed to remove other monuments, as statues across the South and elsewhere were being vandalized or toppled by protesters.
“If our opinions and our policies don’t evolve, then we’re not growing and we are stagnant,” said Curry, a former chair of the Republican Party of Florida.
A spokesman for the president said the campaign was mindful of the city’s racist past. Paris Dennard, an RNC adviser for black media affairs, called the president a “champion” for the black community.
“While we cannot erase some of the darkest moments of our nation’s past, we can denounce them, learn from them, fight for justice and a more perfect union for every American. That is exactly what President Trump has done,” Dennard said.