By AARON MORRISON (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (AP) — A masked white man carrying at least one weapon bearing a swastika fatally shot three Black people inside a Florida store Saturday in an attack with a clear motive of racial hatred, officials said.
The shooting in a Dollar General store in a predominately Black neighborhood left two men and one woman dead and was “racially motivated,” Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said.
In addition to carrying a firearm with a painted symbol of the genocidal Nazi regime of Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, the shooter issued racist statements before the shooting. He killed himself at the scene.
“He hated Black people,” the sheriff said.
The shooting came on the same day thousands visited Washington, D.C., to attend the Rev. Al Sharpton’s 60th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Rudolph McKissick, a national board member of Sharpton’s National Action Network, was not in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. Yet his thoughts on the shooting touched on issues raised by the civil rights leader.
“The irony is on the day we celebrate the 60th commemoration of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King stood up and talked about a dream for racial equality and for love, we still yet live in a country where that dream is not a reality,” McKissick said. “That dream has now been replaced by bigotry.”
The gunman, who was in his 20s, wore a bullet-resistant vest and used a Glock handgun and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He acted alone and there was no evidence he was part of a group, Waters said.
The shooter sent written statements to federal law enforcement and at least one media outlet shortly before the attack with evidence suggesting the attack was intended to mark the fifth anniversary of the murder of two people during a video game tournament in Jacksonville by a shooter who also killed himself.
Officials did not immediately release the names of the victims or the gunman on Saturday. Local media identified a man believed to be the shooter but his identity was not independently confirmed by The Associated Press by early Sunday.
The shooting happened just before 2 p.m. within a mile of Edward Waters University, a small, historically Black university.
The university said in a statement that a security officer had seen the man near the school’s library and asked for identification. When he refused, he was asked to leave and returned to his car. He was spotted putting on the bullet-resistant vest and a mask before leaving the grounds, although it was not known whether he had planned an attack at the university, Waters said.
“I can’t tell you what his mindset was while he was there, but he did go there,” the sheriff said.
Shortly before the attack, the gunman sent his father a text message telling him to check his computer, where he found his writings. The family notified 911, but the shooting had already begun, Waters said.
“This is a dark day in Jacksonville’s history. There is no place for hate in this community,” said Waters, who noted the FBI was assisting with the ongoing inquiry and had opened a hate crime investigation. “I am sickened by this cowardly shooter’s personal ideology.”
Mayor Donna Deegan said she was heartbroken. “This is a community that has suffered again and again. So many times this is where we end up,” Deegan said. “This is something that should not and must not continue to happen in our community.”
McKissick, who is a Baptist bishop and senior pastor of the historic Bethel Church in Jacksonville, said the shooting took place in the New Town neighborhood, which now needs love and affirmation.
“It’s a Black neighborhood, and what we don’t want is for it to be painted in some kind of light that it is filled with plight, violence and decadence,” McKissick said.
“As it began to unfold, and I began to see the truth of it, my heart ached on several levels,” he said, noting the shooting appears to be an extension of a racial divide in the state highlighted by political turmoil, which he said has been fueled in part by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“This divide exists because of the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black people and a governor, who is really propelling himself forward through bigoted, racially motivated, misogynistic, xenophobic actions to throw red meat to a Republican base,” McKissick said in reference to DeSantis.
“Nobody is having honest, candid conversations about the presence of racism,” said McKissick, a Baptist bishop and senior pastor of the Bethel Church in Jacksonville.
DeSantis, who spoke with the sheriff by phone from Iowa while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, denounced the shooter’s racist motivation, calling him a “scumbag.”
“This guy killed himself rather than face the music and accept responsibility for his actions. He took the coward’s way out,” DeSantis said.
McKinnis said the location of the shooting was chosen because of its proximity to Edward Waters University, where students remained locked down in their dorms for several hours. No students or faculty were believed to have been involved, the university said.
The attack at a store in a predominantly Black neighborhood recalls past shootings targeting Black Americans, including at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket in 2022 and a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
The Buffalo shooting, which killed 10 people, stands apart as one of the deadliest targeted attacks on Black people by a lone white gunman in U.S. 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 city’s notorious “Ax Handle Saturday,” when 200 Ku Klux Klan members attacked Black protesters conducting a peaceful sit-in against Jim Crow laws banning them from white-owned stores and restaurants.
The police stood by until a Black street gang arrived to fight the Klansmen, who were armed with bats and ax handles. Only Black people were arrested.
Jacksonville native Marsha Dean Phelts was in Washington with others at the King commemoration and said learning of the shooting was “a death blow.”
Phelts, who is Black, said her acute awareness of Florida’s history of racial tensions was amplified by the deadly shooting. The 79-year-old woman is a resident of Amelia Island, an African American beach community in Nassau County established in 1935 as a result of segregation.
“We could not go to public parks and public beaches, unless you owned your own,” she recalled of the state’s past institutional discrimination. “You did not have access to things that your taxes pay for.”
LaTonya Thomas, 52, another Jacksonville resident riding a charter bus home after the Washington commemoration, said she wouldn’t allow the shooting to draw down her spirits after the “wonderful experience,” but she was saddened by the violence.
“We took this long journey from Jacksonville, Florida, to be a part of history,” she said. “When I was told that there was a white shooter in a predominantly Black area, I felt like that 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 casual now,” she said. “Now you have employees, customers that will never go home.”
AP writers Russ Bynam and John Raoux in Jacksonville, Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Trisha Ahmed in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Mike Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.