A masked white man carrying at least one weapon bearing a swastika shot dead three black people inside a Florida store on Saturday in an attack clearly motivated by racial hatred, officials said.
The shooting at a Dollar General store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood left two dead and a woman and was “racially motivated,” Jacksonville Sheriff TK Waters said.
In addition to carrying a gun with a painted symbol of Germany’s genocidal Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s, the shooter made racist statements before the shooting. He committed suicide on the spot.
“He hated black people,” the sheriff said.
The shooting took place the same day that thousands of people traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend Reverend Al Sharpton’s 60th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Rudolph McKissick, national board member of Sharpton’s National Action Network, was not in Washington, DC, on Saturday. Still, his thoughts on the shooting touch on issues raised by the civil rights leader.
“The irony is that on the day we celebrate the 60th commemoration of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King stood up and spoke of a dream of racial equality and love, we still live in a country where that dream isn’t a reality,” McKissick said. “That dream has now been replaced by intolerance.”
The shooter, in his 20s, was wearing a body armor and was using a Glock handgun and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He acted alone and there is no evidence that he was part of a group, Waters said.
The shooter sent written statements to federal law enforcement and at least one news outlet shortly before the attack, with evidence suggesting the attack was intended to mark the fifth anniversary of the killing of two people at a tournament video game in Jacksonville by a shooter who also killed himself.
Authorities did not immediately release the names of the victims or the shooter on Saturday. Local media identified a man suspected of being the shooter, but his identity was not independently confirmed by The Associated Press on Sunday morning.
The shooting happened shortly before 2 p.m., less than a mile from Edward Waters University, a small, historically black university.
The university said in a statement that a security guard spotted the man near the school library and asked him for identification. When he refused, he was asked to leave and returned to his car. He was spotted donning a body armor and mask before leaving the scene, though it’s unclear whether he had planned an attack at the university, Waters said.
“I can’t tell you what his state of mind was when he was there, but he went there,” the sheriff said.
Shortly before the attack, the shooter texted his father asking him to check his computer, where he had found his writings. The family called 911, but the shooting had already started, Waters said.
“This is a dark day in the history of Jacksonville. There is no place for hatred in this community,” said Waters, who stressed that the FBI was assisting with the ongoing investigation and had opened a hate crime investigation. “I am sickened by the personal ideology of this cowardly gunman.”
Mayor Donna Deegan said she was heartbroken. “It’s a community that has suffered over and over again. It’s often where we end up,” Deegan said. “This is something that should not and must not continue to happen in our community.”
McKissick said the shooting took place in historic New Town, which now needs love and affirmation.
“This is a black neighborhood, and what we don’t want is for it to be painted in a light filled with distress, violence and decadence,” McKissick said.
“As this started to unfold and I started to understand the truth, my heart ached on many levels,” he said, noting that the shooting appears to be an extension of a split. racial turmoil in the state highlighted by the political unrest it has been fueled in part by Governor Ron DeSantis.
“This division exists because of the continued disenfranchisement of black people and a governor who is truly propelling himself forward through bigoted, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic actions to throw red meat at a Republican base,” McKissick said. in reference to DeSantis.
“No one is having honest, candid conversations about the presence of racism,” said McKissick, a Baptist bishop and senior pastor at Bethel Church in Jacksonville.
DeSantis, who spoke to the sheriff by phone from Iowa while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, denounced the shooter’s racist motives, calling him a “bastard.”
“This guy killed himself rather than face the situation and accept responsibility for his actions. He chose a cowardly course,” DeSantis said.
McKinnis said the location of the shooting was chosen because of its proximity to Edward Waters University, where students remained locked in their dorms for several hours. No students or professors appear to have been involved, the university said.
The attack on a store in a predominantly black neighborhood recalls past shootings targeting black Americans, including at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in 2022 and at a historic African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, New York. South Carolina in 2015.
The Buffalo shooting, which killed 10 people, stands out as one of the deadliest targeted attacks on black people by a lone white gunman in US history. The shooter was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Jacksonville shooting came a day before the 63rd anniversary of the infamous ‘Axe Saturday’, when 200 Ku Klux Klan members attacked black protesters who were taking part in a peaceful sit-in against Jim Crow laws banning them from access to white-owned shops and restaurants.
The police stayed there until a black street gang arrived to fight the Klansmen, armed with bats and ax handles. Only blacks were arrested.
Jacksonville native Marsha Dean Phelts was in Washington with others at the King’s memorial and said learning of the shooting was “a deathblow”.
Phelps, who is black, said her acute awareness of Florida’s history of racial tensions was heightened by the deadly shooting. The 79-year-old resides on Amelia Island, an African-American beach community in Nassau County established in 1935 as a result of segregation.
“We couldn’t go to public parks and public beaches, unless you had your own,” she recalled of the state’s past institutional discrimination. “You didn’t have access to things financed by your taxes.”
LaTonya Thomas, 52, another Jacksonville resident who was traveling home by charter bus from the memorial in Washington, said she wouldn’t let the shooting bring her down after the “wonderful experience,” but she was saddened by the violence.
“We made this long trip from Jacksonville, Florida to be part of history,” she said. “When I was told there was a white shooter in a predominantly black area, I felt like it was a targeted situation.”
Thomas said she was able to reach a close family friend employed at the store to confirm the person was not working during the shooting.
“It made the march even more important because of course gun violence and things of that nature seem so commonplace now,” she said. “Now you have employees, customers who will never go home.”