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‘I Was A Freedom Rider’

The Highwomen wrote a great verse about the Freedom Riders in their new song “Highwomen,” on the album of the same name. (On the album, the verse is sung by Yola.) I had all these mug shots and archival footage, so I made a video.

The Criminal Type

My wall of Freedom Rider mugshots and portraits at the “Criminal Type,” a show curated by Elizabeth Breiner and now up thru late October at ApexArt in lower Manhattan. ⁣⁣⁣

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At the top, the first 240 Riders arrested in Jackson, MS, in chronological order (by group). At the bottom, 120 profiles selected and arranged by me. In between, five portraits and bios from my book.⁣⁣⁣

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I loved making all of this, but at the moment I’m very partial to the profile mural. Shorn of their partners, the profiles turn out to be unexpected and surprisingly tender portraits. Freed of their police ID slates but unable to make a face for the camera, the Riders must offer themselves up undefended. The camera records portraits in curl, sideburn, and jawline, the cock of the head, the squaring of shoulders. ⁣⁣⁣

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Amassed, all moving in the same direction, the Riders are a movement, they are *the* movement, they are a portrait of the movement, they are a portrait of America in 1961.

A Birmingham Tableau

 

Photo by Tommy Langston: A Klan-led mob beats a Freedom Rider at the Birmingham Bus Station, May 14, 1961

Fifty-eight years ago today the Freedom Riders were attacked twice in Alabama, yielding two iconic images of the movement. First came the burning bus just outside Anniston, the result of a Klan firebomb. Later in the day, when another group of Riders arrived at the Birmingham bus station, Tommy Langston, a longtime PJ for the Birmingham Post-Herald, captured the beating of a Rider.  

It was the only photograph Langston could make that day before he too was attacked.       

“They grabbed the Rolleiflex and smashed the lens,” said Langston. “I had a Minolta around my neck, and they grabbed the strap and nearly choked me to death. I just hit the ground and tried to cover my face. I think one of them was swinging a chain, because it caught me right across the face and broke my glasses. Then they started kicking me in the ribs. I don’t know if they thought I was dead, but finally they stopped.”

The next day, this picture ran on the front pages of newspapers around the country and around the world. In 1961, in concert with similar photos, it inspired many of the Riders to join the campaign. Today it remains an instructive tableau of white violence and rage, and rewards close study.

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