The Civil-Rights Movement in Two New Photo Books

Helen Singleton confronts the camera with an expression of serene acceptance. She wears a slight smile and a tidy white shirt buttoned almost to the throat. The photo could be from a passport, or a student ID—except for the chain around her neck. Hanging from the chain is a slate, and on the slate are the words POLICE DEPT., JACKSON, MISS., 7-30-61. The photo is a mug shot. When Eric Etheridge, a photographer who grew up in a small town outside Jackson, saw the picture 44 years later, he was struck by the steadiness of Singleton's gaze. "When I looked at the photo, I thought she had such a sense of sureness in her purpose," he says. He told her as much when he went to interview her at home in Inglewood, Calif. Singleton had a different recollection of her feelings at the moment the mug shot was taken. She told Etheridge: "I was just scared."

She had good reason to be. Singleton was one of the more than 300 Freedom Riders, black and white students and activists who boarded buses that summer to test a 1960 Supreme Court ruling outlawing the segregation of interstate travel. The riders journeyed across the South from late May through September 1961, often to hostile receptions. In Anniston, Ala., a bus was firebombed by protesters. In Birmingham, Ala., Klansmen attacked riders inside the bus station. In Jackson, Miss., the riders were arrested and booked with the charge of "breach of peace."

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the assassinations of two of the most important figures of the civil-rights movement: Robert Kennedy, who was U.S. attorney general during the summer of the Freedom Riders, and Martin Luther King Jr., who preached to riders in Montgomery. Two new collections of photographs provide remarkable documentation of the events of the summer of 1961, and the movement as a whole. In "Breach of Peace: Portraits of the Mississippi Freedom Riders," Etheridge, who came across the mug shots after Mississippi's State Sovereignty Commission made the arrest records public in 2002, contrasts the police photos of 70 of the riders with contemporary portraits and brief interviews. "Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956-1968" accompanies an exhibit opening at Atlanta's High Museum of Art this month. While many of the images in the "Road to Freedom" show are familiar—Martin Luther King lying in his casket, white students jeering at a black student in Little Rock—they provide important context to the more personal, more immediate work in "Breach of Peace." Taken together, the two collections remind us that the fight for racial equality was a long, harrowing journey. It may seem clear today that the riders and all activists were fighting a battle whose outcome would be obvious, but even Attorney General Kennedy questioned the efficacy of the Freedom Rides, saying the riders should instead be registering voters. At the same time, he was aware of the scope of the struggle, telling NEWSWEEK in June 1961, "This is going on and on."

One of the most striking things about the photos in "Breach of Peace" is how well dressed most of the Riders were. "If I was going to go to jail, I was going to look like a Southern lady, which I did," Mary Jorgenson, an activist from Berkeley, Calif., told Etheridge. If anything, many of the riders look more radical in the contemporary portraits—many of the clean-shaven faces now sport flowing white beards.

The publication of "Breach of Peace" comes at a time when the mug shot has been gaining cultural currency, both as art and as tabloid fodder, as in last year's "Least Wanted," a collection of arrest photos from the 1870s to 1960s, and the celebrity mug shots that have become the signature feature of Most of these representations reveal the sitters when they have the least control over their own images. They have, after all, just been accused of a crime. The Freedom Rider mug shots are different. Rather than the lowest point in their subjects' lives, the photos mark what was for many of the riders their moment of greatest purpose, and their conviction in their actions shines through. "Despite the fact that we may assume that whoever took the pictures was not a trained a photographer, the images are very powerful," says Etheridge. "Some of them are great portraits."

It's in the contemporary portraits, and the interviews, that many appear most vulnerable, as they reconcile their former idealism with today's realities. In one, a former protester explains that his current form of activism involves picking up trash in his neighborhood. "I thought, 'We can change the world'," says Paul Breines. "I still think I can change the world, but … it's not as historic." Others remain in awe of the courage of their former selves. "It came down to a bunch of teenagers … who knew what the consequences could be," says Miller Green, who was a high-school senior in 1961. "Yet we carried that on our shoulders." The mug shot of the skinny boy with the slate around his neck proves he carried that weight, and he didn't looked scared at all.