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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.'"

Freedom Riders "wanted to be a part of this effort to change America." John Lewis, the future congressman, was arrested for his actions. (Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
Georgia Congressman John Lewis. (Eric Etheridge, from Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, Atlas & Co.)
Mug shot of Freedom Rider Miller Green. (Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
Miller Green, of Chicago, spent 39 days in a Mississippi prison after his arrest at a bus station: "We were jammed in like cattle, with no lights, no air, as punishment for singing and reading sermons." (Eric Etheridge, from Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, Atlas & Co.)
Mug shot of Freedom Rider Joan Pleune. (Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
"I can't stand being silent about things I care about," says Joan Pleune, of New York City, who was arrested with her sister. First alarmed at their activism, their mother took pride in being introduced as the mother of Freedom Riders. (Eric Etheridge, from Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, Atlas & Co.)
Mug shot of Freedom Rider Hellen O'Neal-McCray. (Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
Confined in a Jackson jail for ten days with inmates accused of prostitution and murder, Hellen O'Neal-McCray, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was struck by their kindness: They "embraced me, taught me to play cards and sang freedom songs with me." (Eric Etheridge, from Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, Atlas & Co.)
Mug shot of Freedom Rider Alphonso Petway. (Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)
"I was by myself in the paddy wagon for a while," recalls the Rev. Alphonso Petway, of Mobile, Alabama, who was 16 when arrested at a "white" cafeteria: "That was a frightening moment. I had heard horror stories of people going missing." (Eric Etheridge, from Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, Atlas & Co.)

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.

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