In 1960, the mayor told one story of Ax Handle Saturday. A photo told the truth.

'It was a false narrative and the photo put the light on that,' historian says

'It was a false narrative and the photo put the light on that,' historian says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Charlie Griffin was walking in downtown Jacksonville on Aug. 27, 1960. It’s unclear if the high school junior had any clue about the violence on the verge of breaking out near what was then called Hemming Park.

At the same time, teenage members of the NAACP Youth Council were taking a vote on whether they should continue their sit-in demonstrations at the white-only Woolworth lunch counter.

Rodney Hurst, the group’s president, said the council’s adviser, Rutledge Pearson, told them white men wearing Confederate uniforms and carrying ax handles were spotted downtown. The group of young demonstrators voted unanimously to continue the sit-ins they started in Jacksonville on Aug. 13.

RELATED: Teens carried ‘healthy fear’ into Ax Handle Saturday | Survivor relives Ax Handle Saturday violence

When they arrived, Hurst said, they found a mob of white men swinging at any Black person they saw. That included Griffin, a junior at Northwestern High School, whom Hurst said was neither part of the sit-in protests nor the youth council that had organized the demonstrations.

Griffin would later tell Hurst that a white man had rushed him and took a swing at him with an ax handle, Hurst said in his blog. Griffin told Hurst he tried to defend himself but he was quickly outnumbered.

In a televised interview the day after the attacks, then-Mayor Haydon Burns denied any violence took place between the mob of white men and the black demonstrators. “Not a single member of one group came into contact with a member of the opposite group,” Burns said.

SPECIAL SECTION: Reflecting on Ax Handle Saturday, 60 years later

Even though local media coverage was lacking, the violent outburst got national attention. LIFE magazine published photos in its Sept. 12, 1960, issue that cast doubt on the mayor’s characterization of events.

There was Charlie Griffin in a bloodied shirt with a gash above his eye, the caption saying he’d been rescued by a police officer. It was accompanied by an excerpt describing Griffin being bashed in the head by an ax handle and “casual Negro passers-by finding themselves in danger.”

The picture, according to CEO of the Jacksonville Historical Society Alan Bliss, was a direct contradiction to the suggestion by the Mayor that the event was non-violent.

“It was a false narrative and the photo put the light on that. It’s an example of the sorts of messages that were put out by the leader ship, the civic leadership, and the elected leadership of many southern cities who were averse to allowing the news to report candidly on racial tensions in their city,” Bliss said.

“It’s an example of something that took place when there was still a good reason, a very good reason to be fearful about advocating for your rights as a racial minority, as a person of color in the United States, especially in the American south.”

Griffin, the teen in the photo, went on to graduate from Northwestern High School in Jacksonville in 1961. He never publicly told his story. News4Jax attempted to find him and the photographer who captured the image, but our efforts were unsuccessful.

The black-and-white photo of Griffin’s bloodied face remains: an unvarnished truth about Jacksonville’s past.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.