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Photographic Record

Vanderbilt alum revisits the 1961 Freedom Rides



In May 1961, Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space. Three months later, the Berlin Wall went up in East Germany. Meanwhile, in the American South, integrated groups of Freedom Riders attempted to desegregate restaurants, rest rooms and waiting rooms associated with Trailways and Greyhound bus lines, as decreed by federal law.

It was a dangerous undertaking, as demonstrated in Anniston, Ala., where a bus was firebombed (the passengers all managed to escape), and in Birmingham, where Riders were attacked as they disembarked at the station. Undaunted, the Freedom Riders kept coming, eventually packing the jails of Jackson, Miss., where they were detained on their proposed journey to New Orleans.

Eric Etheridge grew up in Carthage, Miss., about an hour north of Jackson, but was only 4 that summer. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1979, he began a long career in magazine journalism. Later, he became intrigued by photographs in records kept by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, particularly the hundreds of mug shots of Freedom Riders, the basis of Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.

“Once made, the mug shots were treated like documents,” he writes, “stapled, hole-punched and filed. And as documents they are powerful symbols of the repressive surveillance state.”

More than 40 years later, they “comprise a rich historical record.” The Riders came from 39 states and 10 countries outside the U.S. Half were black, half were white (though only two were white Southerners), and about 25 percent were female. Etheridge has so far interviewed and photographed more than 100 surviving Freedom Riders, including more than a dozen with Nashville connections. Two still live in Nashville: Matthew Walker Jr. and Vanderbilt Divinity School’s James Lawson.

Each section of Breach of Peace (the book’s title is taken from the charge levied at the Freedom Riders) begins with a page showing mug shots taken on a particular day. The following pages pair the 1961 photographs with a new portrait, a brief bio and update, and a quotation from the subject. Longer interviews are found at the back of the book, but even the short quotes are revealing. Edward Johnson, who’d grown up in Carthage and Jackson, discusses the day-to-day degradation of life under segregation, while Austrian immigrant Alexander Weiss says he didn’t want to be like the “good Germans who just looked the other way.”

Others discuss their stay in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, where Riders were taken once the Jackson cells filled. They made chess sets from Bible pages or stale bread, and groups of white children were brought in to sightsee. Another Rider, William Harbour, says his family back in Piedmont, Ala., was terrorized because of his participation.

By mid-September the Freedom Rides had ended and the participants returned to school or jobs, and on with the rest of their lives.

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