(Left to right: Stokely Carmichael, Margarent Leonard, Kredelle Petway, Paul Green)
Breach of Peace — the book
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 Riders.
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. My hope is that this publication will lead to many more additions to the series.
Breach of Peace — the web site
But did you know that in 1961 the Jackson police force included two German Shepherds, named Happy and Rebel, who had been trained by a former Nazi dog-trainer?
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.
This web site will be a way to share all this, an ongoing effort to document this remarkable chapter in American history.
A Very Short History of the Freedom Rides
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 decision.
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 stations.
- Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Ray Arsenault. The definitive history of the Rides and a good read.
- The Children by David Halberstam. This Civil Rights history focuses especially on the Nashville Movement and offers exceptional portraits of its key players, including James Lawson, Diane Nash, John Lewis, James Bevel and others, who also played key roles in the Freedom Rides.
A Short History of the State Sovereignty Commission
Why does the complete set of mug shots exist today? We have the State Sovereignty Commission — a sort of Mississippi Stasi — to thank for that.
In 1956, two years after Brown v. Board of Education, 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 inadvertent, archivists.
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 years later.
- The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil Rights and States’ Rights by Yasuhiro Katagiri.
A Short History of Me
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.
Breach of Peace is my first photographic project. I live in the West Village with my wife, Kate Browne, and our daughter, Maud. I blog somewhat regularly at ericetheridge.com. You can here. Follow me on Twitter.