the freedom riders: then and now

The February 2009 issue of Smithsonian has a wonderful article, “The Freedom Writers,” which discusses a photography book created in part as a tribute the 80 heroic men and women who in 1961 boarded buses and headed south to protest illegal segregation at interstate highway facilities. The book by writer and aspiring photographer Eric Etheridge, Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, juxtaposes mug-shots taken when the riders were arrested with current portraits taken by the photographer. The Smithsonian article showcases several of the portraits, and also excepts the stories of some of the men and women featured in the book:

As riders poured into the South, National Guardsmen were assigned to some buses to prevent violence. When activists arrived at the Jackson bus depot, police arrested blacks who refused to heed orders to stay out of white restrooms or vacate the white waiting room. And whites were arrested if they used “colored” facilities. Officials charged the riders with breach of peace, rather than breaking segregation laws. Freedom Riders responded with a strategy they called “jail, no bail”—a deliberate effort to clog the penal facilities. Most of the 300 riders in Jackson would endure six weeks in sweltering jail or prison cells rife with mice, insects, soiled mattresses and open toilets.

“The dehumanizing process started as soon as we got there,” said Hank Thomas, a Marriott hotel franchise owner in Atlanta, who was then a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “We were told to strip naked and then walked down this long corridor…. I’ll never forget [Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) director] Jim Farmer, a very dignified man …walk­ing down this long corridor naked…that is dehumanizing. And that was the whole point.”

Jean Thompson, then a 19-year-old CORE worker, said she was one of the riders slapped by a penal official for failing to call him “sir.” An FBI investigation into the incident concluded that “no one was beaten,” she told Etheridge. “That said a lot to me about what actually happens in this country. It was eye-opening.” When prisoners were transferred from one facility to another, unexplained stops on remote dirt roads or the sight of curious onlookers peering into the transport trucks heightened fears. “We imagined every horror including an ambush by the KKK,” rider Carol Silver told Etheridge. To keep up their spirits, the prisoners sang freedom songs.

More pictures from the book, as well as news coverage, videos, and a sample of the book can be found at breachofpeace.com.

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