The Picture of Heroism

The trip was going pretty much as planned until the travelers were firebombed on Mothers’ Day.

The people of Anniston, Ala., had slashed the tires on their bus and run them out of town. (There were no police on duty to check the violence in Anniston; they’d been given the day off to spend time with their mothers.) When the crippled bus finally rattled to a hissing stop several miles later, the chasing mob set it ablaze and held the doors shut so the people inside might burn. Victims and killers peered at one another through the smoke and glass.

Robert Singleton, Freedom RiderThe travelers managed to push their way out of the burning bus, a feat that won those original 13 Freedom Riders the opportunity to be beaten instead of burned on May 14, 1961. Highway patrolmen arrived and fired shots in the air to prevent a lynching.

The Freedom Riders, or “mixers” as the local papers called them, were “attacking” town after town on a meandering route from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, peacefully protesting segregation at bus and train terminals across the South. They were unpopular in Anniston.

Next stop: Montgomery. The Alabama State Patrol escorted the protesters into town but abandoned them there, and the Freedom Riders were bloodied again, this time with bats and iron pipes. Organizers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) replaced the Riders who were too injured or afraid to continue.

The Kennedy administration pressured the governors of Alabama and Mississippi to protect the protesters from snipers and mob violence. In return for state police and National Guard protection, the Kennedy administration agreed not to intervene should local police arrest the Riders. Photos of peaceful protesters in handcuffs would certainly be less embarrassing than the blood and flames the media had covered thus far.

The Freedom Riders were promptly arrested for “breach of peace” in Jackson, Miss., and the Riders’ strategy changed dramatically in response. They scratched their plan to ride to a rally in New Orleans. Instead, they refused to post bail and invited a steady stream of additional Freedom Riders to Jackson to join them in solidarity.

Hundreds did so. And hundreds were likewise arrested. Once protesters filled the jails in Jackson and Hinds County, they were transferred to the maximum-security facility known as “Parchman Farm”—a place made infamous in countless blues lyrics for more than 70 years.

The officers in Jackson took mug shots and processed the protesters. They likely didn’t comprehend the historical value of their work, but when photographer Eric Etheridge saw those mug shots in 2004, he knew what he had.

Helen Singleton, Freedom RiderTwo hundred Nebraska Wesleyan students crowded into an Olin lecture hall for his November forum lecture. He told them, “Here are the faces of the student-powered 60s. Here is history told at the individual level.”

In their totality, the mug shots created what Etheridge called “a picture of the emerging civil rights movement plunging forward.” He said, “The portraits—the mug shots—are always compelling and frequently stellar.” They moved him and he committed himself to tracking down as many of the surviving Freedom Riders as he could, hearing their stories and retaking their portraits.

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders is the product of that effort. Senior Stefanie Skrdla of Gretna “was awed by the beauty of the images” in Etheridge’s book. She’d studied the Freedom Rides in a rhetoric course the previous semester. She called the forum “an unparalleled opportunity for me to tie together the facts from the classroom with the authentic emotion of the history of our country.”

Speaking with Etheridge at NWU was one of the Freedom Riders: Robert Singleton. In 1961, Singleton was a student at UCLA and president of its chapter of the NAACP. His activism to that point involved helping unearth housing and employment discrimination cases in California. He was excited to get involved in the South.

When the UCLA chapter was invited to join the Freedom Riders, “we had 42 names [of people who expressed interest]. We thought we’d fill that jail ourselves right here from UCLA,” Singleton said. “But of course after they went home and talked to their parents, we dwindled down to 15.”

Singleton and the others received training from organizers. “They wanted us to understand what we were getting into.”

Singleton spoke frankly about the strain the trip put on his ideals. “Nonviolent direct action isn’t as easy as it looks from the outside,” he said. “Cowards can’t resist coming up and putting out a cigarette on you. They get away with that.”

Singleton admitted, “I was only technically nonviolent. I would try to follow them after they left the demonstration and see if I could catch them in the alley.” He said, “I was never a violent person; I never wanted to go to jail.” His eyes brightened as he added, “Except for a good cause.” Singleton’s good cause put him on Parchman Farm with the other Freedom Riders.

Stephen Green, Freedom RiderEven though Singleton served several weeks alongside them, he’d never done more than glimpse the other Freedom Riders’ faces. “We were in jail all along one long bank of cells. We could only sort of see [each others’] hands sticking out our cells.”

He got quick glimpses of some as they were led past on the way to their weekly showers. But, before Etheridge’s book, his memory of those glimpses was all he had. “Eric’s book made it possible for me to see them.” The faces he saw for the first time were white and black, predominantly young, poor and rich, and from across the country.

Etheridge described the mug shot of one Freedom Rider, a young man named Stephen Green who had come from Middlebury College in Vermont. Etheridge said, “He thought he was a pretty smart guy, and one day he was giving a tour of campus to William Sloan Coffin—a radical sort of lefty priest out of Yale. And Coffin turned to him at the end of the tour and said, ‘Wow, this is a really great place to go to sleep for four years.’ And he felt like he’d been slapped.”

That comment sparked a change in the way Green looked at the world—a change that led to his involvement with the Freedom Riders in 1961. That year became a ripe invitation for so many young people to push back at injustice and fight for something good. “I came out of Parchman ready to eat the world,” Green told Etheridge.

Almost 50 years later, college students sense a similar invitation. “All we have to do is… be willing to take on the responsibility of leading others,” Skrdla said.

Candice Howell is NWU’s interim assistant to the provost for student success and diversity. Howell believes that, 49 years after the Freedom Riders launched the student-powered ’60s, “we are on the brink of ‘the student-powered ’10s.’” She said, “Civil rights issues are unifying young people all over today. They include GLBT issues, immigration, women’s rights, poverty, race, health care and education.”

Skrdla said that together, these issues “encompass everything that we as a society… have been fighting for throughout our country’s existence.”

“History gives you these opportunities,” Singleton told his audience at NWU. “If you allow those things to pass you by, something happens to you. You stop growing.”

He described how it felt to be involved at that critical moment. “We had that feeling up until Dr. King was killed…. We thought we had that growth of belief… that we could start to outnumber the bad guys,” Singleton said. “But then it became interrupted. And we’re nowhere near where we would have been had those assassinations not occurred.”

It took heroes to spark that fragile feeling, and racists to smother it. But Singleton senses a return—a new sparking of an old flame. “That feeling—once you get it, then you want to see it come back again.”

Forums like this one play an important part in that return. “We were doing exactly what (Etheridge) hoped the book would do,” Skrdla said. “We were having conversations about the history of our country and learning from the Freedom Riders” before they are gone.

Every movement needs its heroes—people willing to push relentlessly for their beliefs. Etheridge and Singleton showed the 200 college students in that lecture hall that at critical moments in America’s history, the picture of heroism looks exactly like them.