Sights and sounds of Ax Handle Saturday etched in witness’s mind

This photograph provided by Alton Yates shows a mob of men, some wielding ax handles and other implements against peaceful protesters, on Ax Handle Saturday. (Courtesy of Alton Yates)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There are some things in life you can’t forget.

For Rose-Marie Edwards, it’s Aug. 27,1960.

“We heard the noise and the people hollering and the yelling,” Edwards said. “Nothing like I’d heard before.”

Edwards was a waitress at a restaurant inside downtown Jacksonville department store May Cohens at the height of the civil rights movement.

In the summer of 1960, young Black teenage activists with the NAACP Youth Council spent weeks leading lunch counter sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters in downtown Jacksonville. On Aug. 27, cameras rolled as a group of white men attacked Black demonstrators, like NAACP Youth Council President Rodney Hurst, and even Black bystanders passing through downtown.

“You could see they were swinging at everything that looked Black,” Hurst said.

“Somebody came up from downstairs -- three or four other ladies that worked there -- and said they were locking the doors so nobody could get in or out. Some of them were crying. I backed away from the window. I could not watch anymore,” Edwards said. “It was horrible what was going on. I mean, I never thought anything like that would happen in Jacksonville.”

She continued: “When we turned on the news that night, and we couldn’t find anything about it on the news, and my husband, the next morning, we got the paper, I think he found maybe a little small article about it in the paper.”

The day after the violence, then-Jacksonville Mayor Haydon Burns told a reporter nothing happened.

“Not a single member of one group came into contact with a single member of the opposite group,” he said.

But national publication LIFE magazine had already published proof of the violence that happened on the day that came to be known as Ax Handle Saturday: a photo of Charlie Griffin in a bloodied shirt with a gash above his eye.

There are some things in life you can’t forget.

“It was a false narrative, and the photo put the light on that,” said Alan Bliss, CEO of the Jacksonville Historical Society. It’s an example of the sorts of messages that were put out by the leadership -- 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.”

The image has proved to be the most lasting evidence of what happened more than 60 years ago.

February is Black History Month, and News4Jax is celebrating Black culture by highlighting stories in the community. It’s a way for all of us to reflect on the significant way African Americans are shaping history, not just in the River City -- but throughout the world.

About the Author:

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