Newly unearthed footage offers glimpse into Ax Handle Saturday

‘It is very brutal footage, but it is important footage,’ Jacksonville historian tells News4Jax

‘It is very brutal footage, but it is important footage,’ Jacksonville historian tells News4Jax.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sixty-one years later, newly surfaced footage offers a rare glimpse at the violence that consumed downtown Jacksonville on the day known as Ax Handle Saturday.

The video was released by the Jacksonville Historical Society on Thursday night, the eve of the 61st commemoration of the attack. While there is no audio, the graphic violence shown in the 44-second clip speaks volumes about what took place that day in Jacksonville.

Mitch Hemann, a senior archivist for the Historical Society, told News4Jax on Friday that the footage was found through a collaboration with Florida State College at Jacksonville, which is developing a class on the city’s history.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Survivors & historians share insight on events of Ax Handle Saturday

“We dug a little bit on Ax Handle Saturday and we found you could find material related to this in other parts of the world,” Hemann said. “Here there was a media blackout, so there’s very little footage or documentation of it. But even 60 years later, if you dig properly, you can still find this information.”

[Disclaimer: The footage contained in the embedded clip below contains graphic violence]

On Aug. 27, 1960, a mob of white men armed with ax handles and other weapons flooded the streets downtown, chasing and beating Black people – some of them children – caught in their path. While it followed sit-in demonstrations staged by youth activists at segregated lunch counters, others quickly fell victim to the mob violence.

In the newly released video, the mob can be seen marching down the street. Then the video jumps to a group of men running. About 18 seconds in, the mob can be seen beating Black men with ax handles, punching them in the face and throwing them to the ground.

While the footage is disturbing, it represents reality for those who championed the effort to integrate Jacksonville in the 1960s. Among those individuals was Rodney Hurst, who led the NAACP Youth Council that carried out the sit-in protests.

“When we came out of Grant’s [diner], it began to focus on you that these were men with weapons and they were using those weapons,” Hurst told News4Jax in a previous interview.

By the end of the 44-second video, the footage is being filmed by someone with a birds-eye view. As of Friday, it wasn’t clear who filmed all or even some of the newly surfaced footage.

But, as Hemann told News4Jax, the video has a connection to a Jacksonville journalist from years past. He said the footage came to him through Harry Reagan, a former investigative reporter for WJXT and JHS board member.

“He had great interest in Ax Handle Saturday. He has taught courses on it,” Hemann said. “He worked some connections from his CBS days himself. He got in touch with Steve Kroft with ‘60 Minutes.’ They were able to find footage in Manhattan.”

Finding published clips and coverage of Ax Handle Saturday can be challenging. That’s because it received little to no coverage locally. Only the Florida Star, a Black newspaper, covered it in Jacksonville. LIFE Magazine and an out-of-state newspaper picked up the story later on.

Despite efforts to bury the violence, including a denial by then-Mayor Haydon Burns, video like this is valued by historians because it helps to preserve an important moment in the city’s history. Still, Hemann has mixed feelings about it.

“It is very brutal footage, but it is important footage,” he said. “With the media blackout at the time, that’s a measure in terms of trying to keep these stories out of the public. Every little frame of footage you can find today is precious because of that.”

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