Charlie Griffin, victim of Ax Handle Saturday

Life Magazine, “Racial Fury Over Sit-Ins,” September 12, 1960

Photography has captured some of Jacksonville’s best and worst moments. In terms of both pure, visceral impact and historical resonance, few can compare to the photo of a young Charlie Griffin, bloodied and dazed, after a savage assault by white segregationists on Ax Handle Saturday. The most striking image from one of Jacksonville’s darkest days, it remains as relevant today as when it was shot six decades ago.

Stony the road we trod: Jacksonville’s sit-in summer

Reporters talk to Rodney Hurst and the Jacksonville Youth Council during the group’s first sit-in on August 13, 1960. Courtesy of the UNF Digital Commons Rodney Lawrence Hurst Sr. Papers.

In August 1960, the Jacksonville Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began organizing sit-ins at Downtown’s whites-only lunch counters to peacefully protest the businesses’ segregation policies. Sixteen-year-old Rodney Hurst headed the group; civil rights leader Rutledge Pearson served as their advisor. The council held their first sit-in at Woolworth Department Store on Hogan Street on Saturday, August 13, and continued in the ensuing days there as well as at Cohen Brothers, W.T. Grant, and other Downtown Jacksonville stores.

For two weeks, the sit-ins occurred largely without incident. The Florida Star, Jacksonville’s main Black newspaper, covered the story, but the city’s larger papers, The Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal, did not. Nor did the city government issue any statement. The powers that be hoped that by ignoring the protests, they would recede into the background.

White men confronting demonstrators outside Woolworth on Ax Handle Saturday. Courtesy of the UNF Digital Commons Rodney Lawrence Hurst St. Papers.

In the leadup to the planned sit-ins for Saturday, August 27, Pearson got word that segregationists were on the move. White men were marching around Hemming Park, now James Weldon Johnson Park, brandishing Confederate memorabilia and wooden ax handles. Pearson warned the Youth Council that there could be trouble. Undaunted, the council voted unanimously to continue the protest.

The demonstrators sat in at the lunch counters of Woolworth and W.T. Grant as planned, but soon the trouble Pearson feared came for them. A crowd of enraged white people, evidently organized by the Ku Klux Klan, set upon the protesters with ax handles and baseball bats. While they initially focused their attacks on the demonstrators, the mob soon turned its fury on every Black person it came across.

Bitter the chastening rod: Violence erupts

Life Magazine’s photo of Charlie Griffin under attack, from “Racial Fury Over Sit-Ins,” September 12, 1960

Charlie Griffin, a student at Northwestern Jr.-Sr. High School, was one of the mob’s Black victims. As Rodney Hurst wrote in his 2008 book It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke, Griffin was not part of the Jacksonville Youth Council or the sit-ins, and was in fact only downtown that day to do his shopping. As Hurst wrote, Griffin’s offense of “shopping while black” was enough to draw the ire of an ax handle-wielding segregationist.

With a touch of dark humor, Griffin later told Hurst that while he was walking, “this white guy” ran up and swung on him with his ax handle. Hurst wrote that Griffin, a football player at Northwestern, could have easily handled himself in a one-on-one fight, but as he defended himself from that first attacker, others arrived and beat him viciously.

Demonstrators and other African-Americans ran for cover as police did nothing to stop the attacks. Another young man who stumbled into the violence was Nat Glover, who went on to serve as Sheriff of Jacksonville from 1995-2003. Finding himself surrounded by ax handle wielding assailants, the 17 year old Glover ran to a white police officer for help. The officer’s only response was, “You better get out of here before they kill you.” Glover ran home and cried, but he swore never run from such criminal violence again. Six years later, he joined the police department, and in 1995 he was elected Florida’s first Black sheriff since the end of Reconstruction.

Attacks like those on Griffin continued largely unabated until a black street gang called the Boomerangs started fighting back, at which point the police finally stepped in. In the end, 50 people were injured and 62 were arrested, 48 of whom were African Americans.

Next page: Life Magazine captures Ax Handle Saturday