Mississippi : : In Breach of Peace News
Latest Breach bog posts:
Mississippi : : Breach of Peace: The Tour
The Breach of Peace Book Tour debuts at the Smithsonian in DC this Thursday. Appearing will be Freedom Riders John Lewis and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Roger Wilkins, who wrote a terrific introduction to the book, and me. The event starts at 6:45 at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on the Mall. Buy tickets and get more details.
Next stop is Symphony Space in NYC on May 28. Appearing will be Freedom Riders Joan Pleune, Hezekiah Watkins and Albert Gordon, and me. Starts at 7:30 PM. Buy tickets and get more details.
The rest of the book tour dates are here.
Mississippi : : Breach of Peace in May Oprah
Now on the newstands: The May issue of O the Oprah magazine has an excerpt from Breach of Peace. Look for the cover with Oprah holding a big red flower.
Now on the web: I've launched a web site for the book, conveniently called breachofpeace.com, where I will be publishing new material not in the book -- interviews with the Riders, archival documents, archival newspaper coverage of the Freedom Rides and more.
First posts -- "Hank Thomas: My First Arrest" and "Barnett to Kunstler: What If Your Daughter Married One?"
Mississippi : : Bottom-Up History
One of the things that so appeals to me about the Freedom Riders is that they were, for the most part, regular folks. Yes, there were movement leaders and future leaders on the buses and in the cells: James Farmer, James Lawson, Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, among others. But for the most part, the Riders were citizen soldiers who dropped whatever they were doing to go to Mississippi (and elsewhere in the south) in 1961. So I'm happy that Breach of Peace plays a part in recording their place in history, and getting their recollections about their experiences into print.
At his New Yorker blog, Rik Hertzberg writes a brief review about a book just out in paperback that uses the contemporary observations of Union and Confederate soldiers to write a history of the Civil War:
“What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War,” by Chandra Manning (Vintage Books), is a consistently absorbing work of bottom-up history. It is based on the writings of ordinary soldiers on both sides—letters home (some of them dictated by illiterate troops to their lettered comrades), letters to political figures (notably President Lincoln), articles from regimental newspapers (a species of periodical I hadn’t known existed), and resolutions passed and forwarded by the rank and file of military units in the field (another genre new to me). It is the first book by Ms. Manning, who is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown, and it is a work of heroic research, skillful synthesis, and clear writing. . . .
The book is terrific. Taking her title from “When This Cruel War Is Over,” a mournful song that (with very slightly different words) was sung more than any other in both North and South, Manning argues, and pretty much proves, that the war was over slavery and nothing but slavery. The soldiers on both sides understood this very well and, for the most part, understood it earlier than the folks back home did.
Order it from Amazon.
Mississippi : : There He Goes Again
Andrew Sullivan is up to his old tricks, trying to rehabilitate Ronald Reagan yet again on the issue of his infamous campaign speech at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980. This time he has bipartisan help, in the form a new post by Bruce Bartlett and an old one from Kevin Drum.
Bartlett somehow manages to say with a straight face that Reagan's use of the phrase "states' rights" at Neshoba was not evidence of any "winking and nodding" on race, and then goes on to cite the scheduling sequence of Neshoba ahead of an appearance before the Urban League to indicate just how sensitive the Reagan campaign was to the whole race issue.
Right. That's why in his speech in Neshoba, Reagan was careful to distinguish between his modern, non-racist version of states' rights and the Mississippi version, which meant "we can disenfranchise all our black citizens and beat them with impunity if they complain and murder them with impunity if they really complain." Oh wait, sorry, he didn't do that.
In his 2004 post, Drum cites the same Neshoba/Urban League sequence as Bartlett, then says this is not a convincing defense of Reagan. Agreed. He then cites an appearance by candidate Michael Dukakis at the Neshoba Fair in 1988, at which, based on my reading of the New York Times account that Drum quotes at length, Dukakis also chose not to speak truth to power. And that excuses Reagan's behavior exactly how?
Mississippi : : Breach of Peace: Portraits of the Mississippi Freedom Riders
In 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.
You 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.
Mississippi : : "She Asked Me Why. I Just Went On and Told Her"
Mississippi bluesman R. L. Burnside died a week ago Thursday, 9/1, at the age of 78. For the last dozen years or so, he recorded for Fat Possum, in Oxford. He was the real shit. Don't know him? Go listen (freely): "It's Bad You Know" and "Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down."
Here's the Guardian obit and an interview from 1999.
Take away my sin and give me grace.
Mississippi : : Great Moments in Newspapering
Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered 41 years ago today, June 21, 1964, late at night on a gravel road just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their bodies were not found until August 4. On August 3rd, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the state's leading newspaper, editorialized:
If they were murdered, it is by no means the first case of such disposition of Communists of their dupes to insure their silence. . . . However, the careful absence of clues makes it seem likely that they are quartered in Cuba or another Communist area awaiting their next task. . . . There is no reason to believe them seriously harmed by citizens of the most law-abiding state of the union.
Source of the quote: The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States' Rights, by Yashuro Katagari.
Today, the Clarion-Ledger's web site has several good pages on the case: