By The Obama Foundation
To mark the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, we spoke with veterans of the movement, as well as author Eric Etheridge, whose book Breach of Peace features a photo-history of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders and offers a window into what it felt like to live through this pivotal moment in history.
Below you’ll find that Q&A, along with excerpts from our conversations with the Freedom Riders themselves. But to understand their story and their impact, it’s worth revisiting just how extraordinary their journey was.
On May 4, 1961, 13 passengers boarded two buses in Washington D.C. ticketed to arrive 13 days and 1,500 miles later in New Orleans. It was a diverse group: seven Black and six white; three women and 10 men; with backgrounds that included a World War II Navy captain, a former stockbroker, a preacher, and a 21-year-old seminary student named John Lewis, on the cusp of graduation. There was little press coverage of their departure from Washington. But in the weeks and months that followed, those riders and their reinforcements would capture the attention of the world.
All had committed themselves to nonviolent resistance. Their goal was to challenge state laws that enforced segregation in transportation and call upon the federal government to enforce the recent Supreme Court Boynton v. Virginia ruling prohibiting the segregation of interstate travel. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other advocates had organized the rides to build upon recent successful boycotts and sit-ins against segregation throughout the South.
Within days of leaving Washington, riders were threatened, arrested, and beaten. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, John Lewis was assaulted by a dozen young men as he tried to enter a “whites-only” waiting room in the Greyhound terminal. On a highway outside Anniston, Alabama, a mob of nearly 200 firebombed one of the buses, only stopping their attack with the arrival of state troopers, who fired warning shots but arrested no one. Shortly after, in a Birmingham bus terminal, a mob of Klansmen attacked the second group of riders, while members of the Bull Connor-led police department were nowhere to be seen for fifteen minutes following the bus’ arrival.
But as word of the Riders’ courage spread, more Americans stood up to take their place. When a violent mob prevented the riders from leaving Birmingham, Diane Nash, a Fisk University student (and native of Chicago) recruited replacements from Nashville. When another mob attacked those riders in Montgomery, injuring bystanders, journalists, and federal escorts, more reinforcements arrived and pledged to continue on to Mississippi.
In the months that followed, hundreds of volunteers from across the country traveled to Mississippi to join the effort, where most were arrested, refused bail, and imprisoned through the summer.
Through their defiance, the Freedom Riders attracted the attention of the Kennedy Administration and as a direct result of their work, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) issued regulations banning segregation in interstate travel that fall.
As one of the first successful examples of mass protests affecting federal policy, their story stands as a key moment in the Civil Rights movement and a powerful example of the power ordinary people hold to affect change.
Obama Foundation: What inspired you to write Breach of Peace?
Eric Etheridge: Well, I’m originally from Mississippi. I’ve been living in New York for a number of years. I was turning myself into a photographer, and I wanted to do some kind of project with historical images. I finally remembered that in Mississippi during the Civil Rights period in the ’50s and the ’60s, there had been a state agency called the Sovereignty Commission. It was charged with doing any and all things necessary to preserve the sovereignty of Mississippi. In other words, to preserve segregation. And, it had been finally extinguished as an agency in the ’70s, but then there was a long lawsuit about its files, what to do with them. And eventually they were made public. So in the early 2000s, I remembered that these files had been made public, and I thought maybe there’s some photographs in there that I could do something with.
Eventually I talked to somebody at the state agency and I said, “I’m looking for photographs, what have you got?” And she says, “Well, we do have photographs in the files. Most of them are just mugshots.” Kind of with a hint of disappointment in her tone, thinking these are kind of ordinary. We kept talking and I slowly figured out that she in fact had a photograph of every Freedom Rider who was arrested in the facility in 1961. About 75% of all Freedom Riders who participated in 1961 were arrested and photographed.
So we have this incredible record, unlike really any other major campaign in the modern Civil Rights Movement. I realized that I had the project that I was looking for. And, so what I resolved to do back in the early 2000s was to try to find as many of these people today and go around and meet them, and make a new portrait to go along with their mugshot. And, to do an interview about how they got to Mississippi, and what that was like.
Obama Foundation: To seek out those riders to take contemporary photos and conduct interviews must have been challenging. So, how did you accomplish that?
Eric Etheridge: Because they kept good records, not only did I have everybody’s photograph, but I had everybody’s full name – first, middle, last – birth city, birth date and where they were living in 1961 when they were all arrested. And so that plus the internet, you can get some hits, definitely. I’ve actually contacted and talked to about 120 to 130 of the riders who were arrested. And I’ve photographed, I think about 120, but there are only 99 in the book.
Obama Foundation: What was the most surprising thing you learned from those interviews you conducted? Was there a story that really moved you?
Eric Etheridge: Over the time of talking to the 100-plus riders, I really got kind of overwhelmed about the sort of mosaic of the country that demonstrated, and the variety of people who ended up in Mississippi in 1961. You had this amazing cadre of young people. Obviously young black college students in the South. They were trained and they’d been arrested numerous times. They knew what to do, and they were ready to go. And, then you had people from outside the deep South, white, who had never done anything political before. And, yet they were inspired by these photographs they were seeing of violent attacks on the riders that they just literally got on the bus and went to Mississippi. It was this act of individual conscience.
And, you see that story repeated around the country. There was a guy whose family got out of Vienna at the very last minute. They ended up growing up in California, and when he saw the photographs from Alabama, he said to his father, “This is what happened to you and us. I’m not going to stand by this time and let this happen. I’m not going to be a good German.”
So it’s this incredible mosaic of people who were moved, because of their own personal circumstances. Or, the people who didn’t have exactly the same amount at stake, but felt a kinship with those. The stories then all of these different threads from all over the country, and then they all end up in Jackson. It’s pretty amazing.
Obama Foundation: You had an opportunity to photograph probably one of the most famous Freedom Riders, John Lewis. Can you tell me about that experience?
Eric Etheridge: I was very grateful to have Representative Lewis participate. He was very gracious with his time. He had a great view from his office on Capitol Hill, the Capitol Dome in the background. So, I persuaded him to come out on his narrow terrace, and pose for me there. It was really great.
And, I did an interview with him later on the phone. When he started talking and telling a story, whether it was about the Freedom Rides or any of the other stuff he did, his voice was just so compelling. It was just like, you could not believe it if you’d listen to him.
Obama Foundation: Why was it important for you to see this through completion and to get this project out into the world? And, what was the reaction to the book, particularly, in Jackson, Mississippi?
Eric Etheridge: I had kind of stumbled into this great fortune, these mugshots. It was important to me that once I found this project, and I started working on it, I could see how it would come together as a book. The more people I met, the more stories I heard, the more history I read, I became much more aware of what the rides were, what they represented and how they changed the movement. It’s just an amazing history. So then I became sort of haunted and compelled to want to keep bothering people with the stories of a nonviolent revolution that succeeded.
I mean, these people were heroes. They went to war without guns. They were willing to be hit, and they were hit. They were beaten, they were bombed, they were abused in prison in Mississippi. And they won.
They were like, “We’re going to open up the interstate bus stations, and train stations, and airports in the South. How can we be free if we cannot travel freely?” They started in May and by September the Federal Government had said, “We’re now going to enforce no segregation in these facilities.” So, it was a successful campaign And, the movement showed that non-violent direct action could be very successful if done the right way.
So, the project for me has been sort of a way back into my own history, and the history of Mississippi, and the country. They parallel each other a lot. It’s a story that we should all as Americans have at our fingertips. We should know this story as much as we do other stories of the Alamo, or World War II, D-Day. This is the story of American freedom and it’s pretty amazing. So it’s been a very meaningful experience.
Obama Foundation: As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides this month, how do you hope people honor the movement? And, what do you think is the legacy of the Freedom Riders?
Eric Etheridge: I think we honor the legacy of the riders by knowing the history of the rides. Knowing the history of the rides, you come away with the lesson that it’s not about the leaders, it’s about ordinary people. The story of Freedom Rides, it’s ordinary people who were willing to stand up for what they believe in, and to put their bodies on the line. And, these 440 people changed the country in 1961.
I really think the mugshots allow us to know what the Freedom Rides is really. We can see every individual and know a lot about a number of them. They’re teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers and everyday people. And they really did change American history. I think we come back to John’s phrase of “Good Trouble,” I think that remains a standard. That the people have the power to change what they want to change, and change to make things better.