“Breach of Peace” (2008 ) by Eric Etheridge is one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen. It just came out in May.
It has the black-and-white pictures the police in Jackson, Mississippi took of each of the 300 or so Freedom Riders they arrested in 1961 and sent to Parchman prison. The Freedom Riders came there to break the back of Jim Crow.
Just to see their faces, the look in their eyes, to see blacks and whites stand together, knowing that they did not know if they would ever make it back home alive!
And although they are heroes of mine and although they looked so brave and brand-new in the world, they also look so ordinary and everyday. Unlike Hollywood heroes, sometimes their eyes are too far apart or their nose is too big. But somehow that makes them even more beautiful. And like it could have been me.
The Freedom Riders were blacks and whites, mostly university students about 19 or 20 years old, who came from all over America to Mississippi and other places in the American South in the spring and summer of 1961. They came to ride the buses and trains. The stations along the way had separate waiting rooms and restrooms for blacks and whites. It was against the law by that time, but the South kept to its old Jim Crow ways all the same. So the black and white Freedom Riders would go to the wrong rooms in protest.
They were arrested for “breach of peace”, week after week. Soon all of America was watching. President Kennedy was against them and wanted them to stop. But they would not listen, they kept on going. It wound up shaming Mississippi and the rest of the South in front of the whole country. And because these states were breaking the law and everyone now knew it, the president was forced to act.
It was the beginning of the end for Jim Crow. It was that very summer that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.
It has more than just the police photos. It tells you about what the Freedom Riders did and how it fits in to the civil rights movement – and how it did not fit in with Jim Crow.
Etheridge was able to find 84 of the Freedom Riders. They are old men and women now. He took their pictures, asked them about their memories of those days, why they did it and found out what has become of them.
It seems like many of them became teachers and ministers. But maybe that is just because teachers and ministers are so much easier to find.
The price of the book is pretty high: $45 (or almost three crowns, but only $30 on Amazon). I was not sure if I could afford it, if it would cause a fight later with my wife, but in one of those you-only-live-once moments I bought it anyway. I am glad I did.