Remembering Freedom Rides

Published 1:59 pm Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the wall of the Mississippi Museum of Art the question is asked: “For what cause would you ride?”

The question is part of an exhibit being held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders’ efforts to end segregation in Mississippi and other Southern states.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, covering an 11-foot-high by 55-foot-wide wall, is a collection of mug shots of 329 Freedom Riders who were arrested in Jackson in the spring and summer of 1961.

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Julian Rankin, the public relations coordinator for the museum, said the exhibit is important for both young people who might not know the history of the civil rights movement in general — and specifically the Freedom Riders  and for people who lived through the event but, for whatever the reason, have blocked out that part of the state’s history.

“I think it is nice for our museum to be part of honoring the people who historians say jump-started the civil movement in Mississippi,” said Robin Dietrick, the curator of exhibitions for the museum.

The exhibit is one of several currently on display in Jackson as part of the week of events commemorating the Freedom Riders.

Many of those events are not open to the public. Exhibits at the Mississippi Museum of Art and others are.

Other exhibits include:

— In the lobby of the William Winter Archives and History Building, “The Freedom Riders journey for change,” which consists of details and photos and film footage of the arrests in the late spring and summer of 1961 in Jackson.

— At the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, the Smithsonian’s “Freedom sisters” and “Women in the movement: The fabric that weaves them together.”

— At the Council of Confederated Organizations Civil Rights Education Center, “Celebrating the Jackson movement” and “Just stand, anyhow.”

The event at the Museum of Art is titled “Breach of peace.” It is based on the book of the same name by journalist-photographer Eric Etheridge, a Carthage native who now lives in New York.

The breach of peace refers to a section of Mississippi code that the Freedom Riders were charged with breaking. The intent of Mississippi officials was for the about 20 Freedom Riders, many of whom had undergone personal assaults earlier in their trip, including a fire-bombing of one of the buses in Alabama, to be arrested on misdemeanor charges when they reached Jackson.

Officials hoped the arrest on misdemeanor charges would thwart their cause of ending the segregation of the buses, trains and airways in the South.

Instead of making bail, the Riders chose to stay in jail to draw attention for their cause and soon others flocked from across the nation and from the state to join them.

With more than 330 people arrested and refusing to make bail, law enforcement chose to transport them to the maximum security unit at Parchman Penitentiary where, by numerous accounts, they endured harsh conditions.

The event finally ended with the federal government promising to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to desegregate the nation’s transportation system.

The replicas of mug shots at the Museum of Art were copied from the state’s Sovereignty Commission files. The commission was a state agency created in the 1950s to promote segregation and to spy on those who tried to integrate Mississippi.

The Museum exhibit also is interactive. People can get a mug shot taken and respond to the question, “For what cause would you ride?”

The exhibit runs through June 12.