ArtRage: The Norton Putter Gallery

505 Hawley Avenue Syracuse, NY

Breach of Peace

In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred Americans-blacks and whites, men and women-converged in Jackson, Mississippi, to challenge state segregation laws. The Freedom Riders, as they came to be known, were determined to open up the South to civil rights: it was illegal for bus and train stations to discriminate, but most did and were not interested in change. Over 300 people were arrested and convicted of the charge “breach of the peace.”

Artist and author Eric Etheridge’s exhibit, Breach of Peace, collected the mug shots of those arrested, which were only recently made public, and juxtaposed them with present-day photographs of the Riders and their recollections about the experience. The group, half black and half white (a quarter were women), was remarkably young; in their faces we see strength, courage, defiance, dignity, and, occasionally, fear.

When the Jackson jails quickly filled to capacity, Freedom Riders were sent to the maximum-security state penitentiary, where those who refused bail could languish for weeks and months. Many, looking back, speak of the brutal conditions at the prison, but quite a few now view their incarceration as a formative period of growth and learning, with Communists and pastors debating political strategy and with black and white activists, in segregated cells, communicating (and infuriating the guards) by singing freedom songs to each other across the divide.

This exhibit serves as a testament and a moving archive of a chapter in U.S. history that hasn’t yet closed.