Catching up with civil rights Freedom Riders

Fifty years ago, a group of ordinary people did an extraordinary thing: They sat together in bus and train stations, risking their lives to end segregation.

The first Freedom Ride began with 13 people headed from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in May 1961.

The Riders, black and white, were attacked and beaten in Alabama, making headlines around the world. The efforts continued, with more Riders coming from all over the country to Jackson, Miss.

More than 300 people were arrested.

Photographs of some of those people are the subject of “Breach of Peace,” an exhibit opening Tuesday (with an evening reception) at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.

Mounted beside each mug shot is a large portrait of each Freedom Rider taken by New York photographer Eric Etheridge. It is a compelling collection — young, neatly dressed men and women beside their older, wiser selves.

Etheridge was so taken by the mug shots when he saw them in 2003 that he began tracking down the activists to photograph them again.

“The mug shots are very compelling images as portraits and as documents. Here are the faces of the students who were right in the heat of battle,’’ he says. “Once I saw them and how great they were, I wanted to find as many riders as I could.”

Although the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation in bus terminals and train stations was unconstitutional, separate facilities for whites and blacks remained in the South.

The Freedom Riders made a point of sitting together. Once arrested, they refused to post bail or pay their fines, Etheridge says. As more Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson and got arrested, the jail system was overwhelmed.

Their efforts paid off; by the end of 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued clear regulations for bus and train stations and terminals banning segregation. The “White” and “Colored” signs came down and people could sit where they wanted.

Etheridge, who has written a book, “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders,” has photographed more than 100 Riders. On the cover of his book is a mug shot and his own portrait of Helen Singleton — then a young student from California, now a retired arts administrator.

Etheridge says he was drawn to her expression — a look that seemed to say, “I know what I’m doing.” Years later, her face holds the same gaze of confidence and serenity.

Freedom Riders such as John Lewis and Bob Filner went on to become U.S. congressmen. Others became businessmen, teachers and ministers. At least one is still getting arrested for protesting injustice.

As Etheridge says, “They’re still doing what they can.”


Breach of Peace: Photographs of Freedom Riders by Eric Etheridge

Where: Katz Snyder Gallery, Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., San Francisco

When: Opens Tuesday; gallery hours 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays-Sundays; closes May 31

Admission: Free

Contact: (415) 292-1233;;

Note: A free opening event at 7 p.m. Tuesday features former Freedom Riders Ed Johnson, Mort Linder, Mimi Real, Carol Ruth Silver and Alexander Weiss reuniting with KGO Radio’s Ray Taliaferro for a discussion. Reservations are required. 

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