Life Magazine captures Ax Handle Saturday
As per their usual practice, Jacksonville’s local papers, the Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal, barely covered the attacks. Mayor Haydon Burns downplayed what had happened, likening it to the rowdiness of an annual Florida-Georgia football game. On television the next day, he denied there had been any violence at all, telling the media that “not a single member of one group came into contact with a member of the opposite group.”
However, outside publications like The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times and Life Magazine were there to punch through the veil of willful blindness. In its September 12 issue, Life chronicled the events in a brief pagelong piece that included two photographs of Charlie Griffin. Neither the photographer nor the writer are identified.
The first image shows Griffin being attacked by an older white man in the street. “As other whites look on, a Negro who happened by is pummeled by a segregationist,” reads the caption. The second photo is the famous one above, depicting the aftermath: a bewildered-looking Griffin, face gashed, shirt spattered with blood, being escorted by a police officer. The caption succinctly reads “Rescued by cop: Charlie Griffin… had his head bashed by an ax handle.”
Legacy of a haunting image
The Charlie Griffin image is part of a mural on the Eastside Brotherhood building. Photo by Katie Delaney.
While Jacksonville’s leadership and institutions tried to play down Ax Handle Saturday, the image of Griffin persisted as a haunting reminder of what occurred that day. As Jacksonville Historical Society CEO Alan Bliss told News4Jax, “It was a false narrative and the photo put the light on that.” The attacks did not keep the sit-in from making progress. The downtown lunch counters agreed to integrate the next year, one of many civil rights victories won over the next few years.
For his part, other than a few quotes recorded by Rodney Hurst, Griffin apparently never told his story publicly. He graduated from Northwestern High in 1961, and it’s not known what became of him after that. News4Jax reporter Kelly Wiley’s attempt to track him down in 2020 was unsuccessful. Only the photographs and the memories of his friend bear witness to what he experienced.
The historical plaque in James Weldon Johnson Park
In 2000, the city commemorated Ax Handle Saturday with a historical marker describing the events of the day, placed in James Weldon Johnson Park. Since that time, the photo of Griffin has commonly featured in retrospectives on the attacks and on Jacksonville’s civil rights history. In 2010, the photo was included in two exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday at the University of North Florida and the Ritz Theater and Museum. In 2018, the photo became a subject of artistic expression. The University of North Florida Center for Urban Education and Policy sponsored a mural that featured the image along with other scenes from local civil rights history on the Eastside Brotherhood building on the corner of A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and Jessie Street.
The photo’s continued resonance speaks to its ability to evoke strong emotion, even 60 years after it was taken. But perhaps its greatest impact is not in what it shows, but what it represents. In putting the lie to an official story that obscured a reality of racist violence, the image of Charlie Griffin embodies something as relevant today in the age of smart phones as it was then: the ability of a person on the ground, armed only with camera, to expose buried truth.
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at email@example.com.