By Maurice Berger — For seven months in 1961, hundreds of black and white volunteers descended on Southern bus and train stations. These Freedom Riders, as they were called, occupied segregated waiting areas, lunch counters, and restrooms in an attempt to compel the federal government to do what local authorities would not: enforce a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared discrimination in interstate public transportation illegal.
During their first incursion into the Deep South, as they rode buses through Alabama, the Freedom Riders were met by angry mobs of white people. Many were savagely beaten. Later that month, in Jackson, Miss., hundreds of protesters were arrested and hastily convicted of breach of peace. Most endured six weeks of imprisonment in sweltering, filthy and vermin infested cells.
Among the important artifacts of this historic campaign are more than 300 mug shots taken of the Freedom Riders in Jackson, now the subject of“Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders” (Vanderbilt University Press). In it, the journalist and photographer Eric Etheridge provides visual and oral histories of these courageous men and women, juxtaposing vintage mug shots with short biographies, interviews and contemporary portraits. Originally published in 2008, this expanded edition, with updated profiles and additional portraits, includes essays by the writer Diane McWhorter and Roger Wilkins, the journalist and official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who died last year.
Mr. Etheridge, who grew up in Mississippi, first saw the mug shots after the state’s Department of Archives and History published them online. “I was captivated by these images and wanted to bring them to a wider audience,” he recalled. “I wanted to find the Riders today, to look into their faces, to make new portraits to set against the earlier photographs.” Since he began working on the project in 2005, Mr. Etheridge has tracked down nearly a hundred Riders, visiting them in their homes, conducting interviews and making new portraits.
If these mug shots inadvertently captured the humanity and special qualities of their principled subjects, as Mr. Etheridge observed, their intention was nefarious: to publicly impugn and humiliate people whose only crime was to advocate equality through peaceful protest. No matter their purpose, mug shots inevitably imply aberrance or delinquency, whether or not the people they depict are eventually found to be guilty. With this in mind, the current mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, issued an executive order in February prohibiting their release in cases involving people killed by the police.
“Mug shots and sensationalized news narratives create lasting impressions that adversely impact communities and widen the historical divides between police and community,” stated Mr. Lumumba’s directive. “A mug shot is just one snapshot in time, and cannot be presumed to represent the sum total of any individual’s existence.”
By pairing mug shots with contemporary portraits — and providing stories about individual Freedom Riders — Mr. Etheridge undoes some of the psychic and social damage perpetrated by these symbols of police malfeasance. “Breach of Peace” corrects the historical record, representing its subjects not as dehumanized icons of criminality but as exemplary citizens and complex human beings.
The Freedom Riders were a diverse group. Largely college students at the time, they came from 39 states, were of different races and economic classes, and went on to varied careers: Hank Thomas, then a sophomore at Howard University, now owns fast food and hotel franchises; Peter Stoner, who studied at the University of Chicago, earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and later worked as an auto mechanic; Margaret Leonard, who attended Newcomb College, became a journalist; Hezekiah Watkins, who was a ninth-grade student in Jackson, ran a small grocery store; and Helen O’Neal McCray, a sophomore at Jackson State University, taught elementary school and later writing and literature at Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio.
The diversity of the Freedom Riders affirms the importance of allies in the struggle for racial equality and justice, acknowledging that the support of some in the white majority was necessary to achieve legal and political rights. In the early 1960s, these demonstrators motivated and inspired Americans of all races. “The courage and tenacity of the Riders electrified large segments of the American public and drew them into the midcentury civil rights movement as no activity had done before,” Mr. Wilkins wrote. “People began asking themselves: ‘What can I do?’”
The solidarity of these activists stands in contrast to the complacency and social and cultural divisions that impede progress today. The period between the initial publication of “Breach of Peace” in 2008 and its reissue in 2018 attests to the volatile and continually shifting fortunes of the struggle for racial equality and justice. A decade ago, the nation made history as a coalition of voters of all colors elected the nation’s first black president. Today, an administration routinely exploits racial anxiety and resentment.
There is much to learn from the unity, courage and passion of the Freedom Riders, whose efforts resulted in federal regulations prohibiting segregation in interstate transit terminals. During the 50th anniversary of their demonstrations, many came forward to tell their stories, work that continues to the present day.
“They did not waste their golden anniversary press,” Mr. Etheridge wrote. “The good news is that since 2011 the Riders have become much more frequent speakers in classrooms, libraries and auditoriums across the country. Once more they are putting their bodies on the road, this time to share their histories, to tell how they resisted, to spread the practice of ‘good trouble,’ as John Lewis calls it. … The good news is that the Freedom Riders are still overreaching.”
Race Stories is a continuing exploration of the relationship between race and photographic depictions of race by Maurice Berger. He is a research professor and chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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