Eric Etheridge recently sent over a copy of his book Breach of Peace, and it has literally taken my breath away. An exhaustive photographic and archival survey of the lives of the Mississippi Freedom Riders through their original mug shots, it seems an incredibly important and poignant reminder of what can be achieved by ordinary people.
Here’s a description and synopsis from the very helpful Breach of Peace blog:
Breach of Peace is a book about the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders,
a photo-history told in images old and new. The book features new
portraits of 80 Riders and the mug shots of all 328 Riders arrested in
Jackson that year, along with excerpts of interviews with the featured
In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred Americans — blacks
and whites, men and women — entered Southern bus and train stations to
challenge the segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters and bathrooms.
The Supreme Court had ruled that such segregation was illegal, and the
Riders were trying to force the federal government to enforce that
Though there were Freedom Rides across the South, Jackson soon became
the campaign’s primary focus. More than 300 Riders were arrested there
and quickly convicted of breach of peace–a law many Southern states and
cities had put on the books for just such an occasion. The Riders then
compounded their protest by refusing bail. “Flll the jails!” was their
cry, and they soon did. Mississippi responded by transferring them to
Parchman, the state’s infamous Delta prison farm, for the remainder of
their time behind bars, usually about six weeks.
A few days after the last group of Riders were arrested in Jackson, on
September 13, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued new
regulations, mandating an end to segregation in all bus and train
Here’s more info on the project.
Below are tidbits I’ve cobbled together from conversations with Eric, research on the blog, and text from the book.
How do these records exist?!
In 1956, Mississippi
established the State Sovereignty Commission and empowered it “to do
and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to
protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister
states, from the encroachment thereon by the Federal Government.”
As it turned out, “any and all things” included hiring a former FBI
agent who had once worked for J. Edgar Hoover and establishing a
network of informants throughout the state to report on on the doings
of anyone who showed the slightest inclination to thing or act
differently on matters of race.
The commission’s investigators kept close track of the Riders as they
came to Jackson, gathering their names, addresses, birth dates and mug
shots from the police and filing that information away. They thus
preserved not only the mug shots but the name of every Freedom Rider
and other information that would prove very useful in finding them some
forty years later. In my research I found no evidence that the
commission ever used this this information again, even though several
of the Riders continued working for the movement in the state. Perhaps
the investigators were were just fulfilling a bureaucratic imperative.
For whatever reason, the investigators proved also to be excellent, if
I started contacting Riders and making portraits in 2005. I usually met
them in their homes. Our sessions lasted on average three hours, the
first of which was spent conducting an interview. Then we made a
Though it was defunct by 1973, the commission was not finally abolished
until 1977. At that point, the Mississippi ACLU and other plaintiffs
sued the state to force it to open the agency’s files. Twenty-one years
and much legal wrangling later, they won, and the files were turned
over to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and opened
to the pubic. Four years later, in 2002, MDAH archivists published
every page of the files online, which is where I came across them, two
Catherine Burks-Brooks. Born October 8, 1939, in Birmingham, AL.
Then: Senior, Tennessee State, Nashville; active in the Nashville movement.
EE: When I first came across the mug shots, in 2004, I was immediately
captivated by the faces looking back at me. The police camera had
caught something special, even if no one quite intended it that way.
The resulting portraits were compelling and intense, a major addition
to the Civil Rights movement’s already rich visual history. I wanted to
bring the mug shots to a wider audience. I wanted to find the Riders
today, and to offer them the chance to make a new portrait to set
against the earlier photograph.
I started meeting Riders and making portraits in 2005. I usually met
the Riders in their homes. Our sessions lasted on average three hours,
the first of which was spent doing an interview. Then we made a picture.
Though the book is now published, my project remains ongoing. Apart
from the Riders I have photographed, the ones who said no (a handful),
and the ones I know have died, there are about 140 Riders I have not
been able to find. A decent number of the Riders knew the mug shots still existed and had
seen theirs. But for the majority their mug shot was a great &
Burks-Brooks now: works as a substitute teacher in the Birmingham schools.
David Myers & Winonah Beamer
Then: Both students at Central State University, in Wilberforce, OH.
Since Then: They married in 1962. David worked as a photographer for several years, first at Central State, then for newspapers in Xenia, OH and Waterloo, IA. Winonah spent most of her career working with profoundly retarded adolescents and adults at a number of institutions in Ohio. They now live in Ellenton, Florida.
“When I was arrested, a reporter from my hometown paper did a story on me, with a picture on the front page, a very nice article. The day after my arrest was Memorial Day. The chairman of my draft board was the commander of the American Legion Post and was also the main speaker on the courthouse steps for Memorial Day services, and he lashed out at the newspaper for making a hero of a known communist.
Then they passed a public resolution which said that I, being a communist, should never be allowed to teach school in the state of Indiana. They send that on to the governor, Matthew Welsh. Well, the governor later helped pay my bail in Mississippi, so you can see how much credence he gave that.” — David Myers
“I never asked my father and mother if I could go on the Freedom Rides, for fear that they would say no. Out of respect I would have honored that direction. Rather than to have to face that, I just decided to go.”
Since then: Moved back to DC, where he was a pastor until his retirement in 2006.
EE: In doing my research I amassed a great deal of material that didn’t fit
in the book — secret jail and prison diaries kept by the Riders, along
with other documents and items they saved, government memos, archival
newspaper clips and photographs, and more. I also have much more oral
history from my interviews with the Riders than I could possibly use in
the book — accounts of their arrests in the bus and train stations,
stories about life in the city jails and Parchman, reports of their
work the movement before and after the Freedom Rides.
Parents of the several Freedom Riders incarcerated in the Jackson jails
and Parchman, the state prison, routinely got in touch with officials
in order to get various items to their children or simply to make sure
their children were OK.
Mulholland had been arrested on June 8 at the train station in Jackson.
At the time, she had dropped out a college after a freshman year at
Duke and was living in Washington, DC, active with the Nonviolent
Action Group, as the DC student movement was known, protesting
segregation in the capitol, Maryland and northern Virginia.
Traumpauer’s recollections of being transferred to State Prison Parchman:
“Then it was night, I think, when we got to Parchman– getting processed and a change of clothes and vaginal searches. The matrons would dip their– as I recollect, it was gloved hands, but somebody else may remember it differently– they would dip ’em into these buckets of whatever in between gouging up us. It smelled like Lysol or Pine Sol, one of those highly disinfectant things. It was all frightening. I think it was meant to impress the seriousness of our isolation and they could do anything they wanted to.”
After the Freedom Rides she transferred to Tougaloo, a black college in
Jackson, from which she graduated in 1964. Since then she has lived in
Arlington, VA, and worked for the Smithsonian, the Justice Department
and as a teacher in the public schools. (She later changed the spelling
of Trumpower, her then last name.)
Then: Sophomore, Howard University, Washington, DC. Active in the student movement there. One of the original thirteen Freedom Riders who left Washington, DC, on May 4, 1961, and was on the bus firebombed outside Anniston, AL, on May 14.
Since Then: Moved to Atlanta after serving in Vietnam, and got into the
franchise business, starting with a laundromat, followed by a Dairy
Queen. Today he and his wife own two McDonald’s and four Marriott
hotels; they live in Stone Mountain, GA.
Peter Stoner. Born in 1938 in Milton, MA.
Since Then: Worked throughout Mississippi in the civil rights movement during the sixties and was frequently arrested. Later got a master’s degree and PHD in chemistry at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg. Rerturned to Jackson, where he has worked as a car mechanic, for others and for himself.
Read the Breach of Peace blog here.
Check out the book site, here.
Buy it, here.
“I have 12 portraits (including Hank Thomas, Jesse Harris, Reginald
Green, and Peter Stoner, which I sent you) plus a mural of 100 of the
mug shots in the Road to Freedom show currently hanging at the High
Museum in Atlanta (Going to the Smithsonian in DC later this year, and
then to the Skirball in LA and I think a couple of other stops as
well).” More info here.
About Eric Etheridge:
I was born in 1957, and grew up primarily in Carthage and Jackson,
Mississippi. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1979, I
moved to New York City to work in the magazine business. I was an
editor at a number of publications, including The Nation, Harper’s, 7 Days, Rolling Stone and the New York Observer. In 1996 I started working online, creating and running sites for Microsoft (New York Sidewalk), Deja.com, the New York Times and others.