Breach of Peace

In the foreword to Breach of Peace, Diane McWhorter observes that the victories of the civil rights movement have “an inevitability bestowed by hindsight.” Eric Etheridge’s stunning book collects the mug shots of the several hundred Freedom Riders arrested in 1961 while attempting to integrate bus and train terminals in Jackson, Mississippi, and it is an immediate, gripping reminder of both the risks that were taken in the civil rights struggle and of who took them. 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. The mug shots, which were only recently made public, have been compiled by Etheridge, who juxtaposes them with present-day photographs of the Riders and their recollections about the experience. “We were not afraid to die,” says one. “I was scared witless,” recalls another. With 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.