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After a mob attacked a bus with protesters in Alabama in 1961, hundreds more joined the cause. (Bettmann / Corbis)

The Freedom Riders, Then and Now

Fighting racial segregation in the South, these activists were beaten and arrested. Where are they now, nearly fifty years later?

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On Sunday, May 14, 1961—Mother's Day—scores of angry white people blocked a Greyhound bus carrying black and white passengers through rural Alabama. The attackers pelted the vehicle with rocks and bricks, slashed tires, smashed windows with pipes and axes and lobbed a firebomb through a broken window. As smoke and flames filled the bus, the mob barricaded the door. "Burn them alive," somebody cried out. "Fry the goddamn niggers." An exploding fuel tank and warning shots from arriving state troopers forced the rabble back and allowed the riders to escape the inferno. Even then some were pummeled with baseball bats as they fled.

A few hours later, black and white passengers on a Trailways bus were beaten bloody after they entered whites-only waiting rooms and restaurants at bus terminals in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama.

The bus passengers assaulted that day were Freedom Riders, among the first of more than 400 volunteers who traveled throughout the South on regularly scheduled buses for seven months in 1961 to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision that declared segregated facilities for interstate passengers illegal.

After news stories and photographs of the burning bus and bloody attacks sped around the country, many more people came forward to risk their lives and challenge the racial status quo. Now Eric Etheridge, a veteran magazine editor, provides a visceral tribute to those road warriors in Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders. The book, a collection of Etheridge's recent portraits of 80 Freedom Riders juxtaposed with mug shots from their arrests in 1961, includes interviews with the activists re-flecting on their experiences.

Etheridge, who grew up in Carthage, Mississippi, focuses on Freedom Riders who boarded buses to Jackson, Mississippi, from late May to mid-September 1961. He was just 4 years old at the time and unaware of the seismic racial upheaval taking place around him. But he well remembers using one entrance to his doctor's office while African-Americans used another, and sitting in the orchestra of his local movie theater while blacks sat in the balcony.

"Looking back," Etheridge says, "I can identify with what the white South African photographer Jillian Edelstein has said: 'Growing up white in apartheid South Africa entitled one to massive and instant privilege.' "

A few years ago, Etheridge, who lives in New York City and has worked for Rolling Stone and Harper's, began looking for a project to engage his budding photographic skills. During a visit with his parents in Jackson in 2003, he was reminded that a lawsuit had forced the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency created in 1956 to resist desegregation, to open its archives. The agency files, put online in 2002, included more than 300 arrest photographs of Freedom Riders."The police camera caught something special," Etheridge says, adding that the collection is "an amazing addition to the visual history of the civil rights movement." Unwittingly, the segregationist commission had created an indelible homage to the activist riders.

Nearly 75 percent of them were between 18 and 30 years old. About half were black; a quarter, women. Their mug-shot expressions hint at their resolve, defiance, pride, vulnerability and fear. "I was captivated by these images and wanted to bring them to a wider audience," Etheridge writes. "I wanted to find the riders today, to look into their faces and photograph them again." Using the Internet and information in the arrest files, he tracked riders down, then called them cold. "My best icebreaker was: 'I have your mug shot from 1961. Have you ever seen it?' Even people who are prone to be cautious were tickled to even think that it still existed."

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