Mostly Photos :: Eric Etheridge

« June 2006 | Main | December 2006 »

links for 2006-07-10

Posted on July 09, 2006, in Delicious links.

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the Mississippi Freedom Riders

breachofpeace.jpgIn the Spring and Summer of 1961, several hundred Americans — blacks and whites, men and women — entered Southern bus stations, train stations and airports to challenge state segregation laws. Under federal law, interstate transportation facilities were no longer allowed to discriminate, but most did and were not interested in change. Over 400 people would be arrested in that landmark campaign, an "insistent and innovative movement that seized the attention of the nation in 1961, bringing nonviolent direct action to the forefront of the fight for racial justice," according to historian Ray Arsenault in his good new book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice

Though the campaign was widespread across the South, the primary focus of the Freedom Rides came to be Jackson, Mississippi, where over 300 people were arrested. The Mississippi Freedom Riders were from all over the country, primarily New England and the Midwest, California and the South (especially Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana). Many were college students, though some were older, and a few were still in high school. All were convicted of breach of peace and did time in the city jail; most all of them also did six weeks at the state's infamous prison, Parchman.

The name, mug shot and other personal details of each Freedom Rider arrested were duly recorded by agents of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a combination PR/investigative agency whose purpose was to "perform any and all acts deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi." The files of the agency, shut down in 1973, were made public in 1998 after a lengthy court battle and are now housed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Though I lived just an hour's drive north of Jackson, in a little town called Carthage (map), I was only four in 1961, and not yet aware of my state's troubled racial history or the emerging Civil Rights movement.

Two years ago, I came across the Freedom Rider mug shots in the Sovereignty Commission files; they are compelling historical images, unintentionally moving portraits of ordinary citizens who were willing to put themselves in harm's way to win the rights guaranteed by the Constitution but still denied to so many. I decided to try to find as many of the Mississippi riders as I could and make contemporary portraits to accompany these earlier photographs.

To date I have photographed 19 former Freedom Riders. The mug shots and my portraits of Helen and Robert Singleton, a couple who traveled from Los Angeles to Jackson to be arrested on July 30, 1961, were published in the July 2 issue of the New York Times Magazine. These pictures are also online at the newspaper's website, along with the mug shots and my portraits of two other riders — Richard Steward, then a college student in New Orleans, and Fred Clark, then a high school student in Jackson.

eugenelevine.jpgYou can see the portraits of two additional riders on my photoblog: Euguene Levine (right), a World War II veteran who drove from Oklahoma to Jackson and got himself arrested — twice — in the train station, and Stephen Green, then a Middlebury senior and now a Vermont state legislator. I will be publishing the mug shots and portraits of more Mississippi Freedom Riders in the coming days.

Update February 2008: Since this was published, I have photographed many more Freedom Riders and the series has become a book. Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders will be published in May, by Atlas & Co. The book includes 80 new portraits of Freedom Riders as well as the mug shots of the more than 300 people arrested in Jackson in the spring and summer of 1961, plus excerpts from my interviews with Riders.


Posted on July 01, 2006, in Mississippi.