Then and now: Joan Pleune’s mug shot from 1961 and a portrait of the activist today.
Nearly 50 years ago, race relations changed in the United States. Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, on display at the ArtRage gallery, documents and reflects one important civil-rights action of the 1960s. One selection of photos, an array of more than 200 mug shots, references the arrest of civil-rights activists in Jackson, Miss., during the spring and summer of 1961. They defied laws mandating segregation in bus depots and train stations. Another selection features 14 Freedom Riders, pairing each person’s mug shot with a current photo and brief text describing that individual and quoting from her or his recollections.
The exhibition is drawn from Eric Etheridge’s book, Breach of Peace (Atlas & Co., 2008). In his work, he delved into the files of the long-defunct State Sovereignty Commission, an agency dedicated to preserving segregation in Mississippi, finding the mug shots and other materials related to the 1961 arrests. The book, and exhibits like the ArtRage show, reclaim and reposition the mug shots, placing them into a radically different context. Etheridge has transformed an arrest record into a tool for recalling the recent past.
In addition, he interviewed and photographed about 100 activists. It’s not possible to present all the material in a gallery setting. On the other hand, the exhibition, with its mix of mug shots, contemporary photos and text, has ample room to discuss the book’s key themes.
First, Breach of Peace, the exhibit, emphasizes the concept and virtues of group action. Yes, viewers knowledgeable about the civil-rights movement will find a few familiar names in the mug shots: James Farmer, director of the Congress of Racial Equality which organized the Freedom Riders; the Rev. C.T. Vivian, long active in a range of civil-rights groups; John Lewis, later elected to the House of Representatives from Georgia.
However, displaying dozens of mug shots effectively makes a larger point: Several hundred people chose to become Freedom Riders. They included the Rev. LeRoy Glenn Wright, a Syracuse resident; Hezekiah Watkins, who was 13 when he joined the protest; Philip Havey, a veteran of the Catholic Worker movement; the Rev. James Lawson, who was expelled from Vanderbilt University Divinity School in 1960 for actively opposing segregation.
Second, those who joined the Freedom Riders encountered substantial risk. The journey started with 13 people boarding a bus in Washington, D.C; they were joined by other demonstrators and traveled through the South. By the time they arrived in Jackson, they had met with violent resistance several times. In Anniston, Ala., segregationists firebombed three buses with Freedom Riders inside them. In Jackson, after the Freedom Riders refused to pay fines after being convicted of breach-of-peace charges, they were locked up in Parchman, a notorious Mississippi prison.
Further, the exhibition and the book show that the Freedom Riders were in no way involved in a sure thing. A variety of observers, inside and outside civil-rights organizations, had predicted that the action would fail. In the end, the Freedom Riders’ journey led to the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawing segregation in train and bus stations.
Third, those who joined the Freedom Riders were a varied group of people. Watkins eventually took part in more than 100 demonstrations and had a plate installed in his head after a severe beating. Vivian had joined a 1947 sit-in intended to desegregate a cafeteria in Peoria, Ill. Others had little experience as activists.
Lastly, the Freedom Riders’ 1961 experience still stirs up strong memories. Indeed, Pauline Knight-Ofosu, in discussing the threat of violence, said, “They couldn’t kill my soul.” Others spoke of being arrested and of the harsh conditions in prison.
In conjunction with the exhibit, ArtRage is hosting a Feb. 21 presentation featuring Eric Etheridge and the Rev. LeRoy Glenn Wright; that forum begins at 2 p.m. and will be followed by a book signing. Other events include Poetry and Rebellion, a night of performance poetry on Thursday, Feb. 11, and a Feb. 18 talk by Nancy Larraine Hoffmann about the Civil Rights Connection, a project that teaches students about the movement. Both of those events begin at 7 p.m.
Breach of Peace is on display through Feb. 27 at ArtRage, 505 Hawley Ave. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call 218-5711.