BREACH OF PEACE: POTRAITS OF THE 1961 MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM RIDERS
By Eric Etheridge
Atlas & Co., 239 pages, $45
The slog was slow and messy, but the Democratic primary season at least left us with a handy object lesson in the principles and perils of proportional response. One suspects that for the Clinton and Obama shock troops alike, the defining episode will be the May 31 meeting of the DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee, one of the few chapters of late capitalist civic life deserving of the old 20th-century catch-all epithet “Kafkaesque.”
There, stammering and shaking on the dais, was Harold Ickes—veteran of 1964’s Freedom Summer and namesake of F.D.R.’s secretary of the interior during the Depression and, oh, World War II—shrieking bloody “hijack,” and gravely threatening to take the matter to the Credentials Committee, as if all the great and evil men of history would have understood the gravity of the suggestion. Nuclear option, sure, but not the Credentials Committee. And meanwhile, inside and outside that most banal of hotel conference rooms, the potential fifth-column Hillaryites were throwing an apoplectic, apocalyptic fit. Misogyny! Disenfranchisement! A betrayal of democratic traditions, and Democratic ones as well!
The day’s histrionics implied that barricades were going up in Appalachia and Ohio and Florida, that, as the meeting adjourned, cable news would soon cut to Day One of the Scranton Commune. We’ve had our fill of 1968, Clinton’s team seemed to signal, give us 1871!
I CAN’T HELP WONDERING what John Lewis was thinking on May 31, as that D.C. Marriott looked to be going up in flames. The civil-rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman backed Ms. Clinton’s candidacy early and often, before a rather pathos-filled public conversion to Obama late in February. Mr. Lewis is also perhaps the most notable of the fresh-faced, conservatively groomed young men and women featured in Breach of Peace, Eric Etheridge’s new photographic study of the Mississippi Freedom Riders.
As Diane McWhorter ably recounts in her foreword to the book, on May 20, 1961, Mr. Lewis—a former “boy preacher” then attending the American Bible Theological Seminary in Nashville—took a Greyhound SceniCruiser bound from Montgomery to Jackson and was promptly “brained by a wooden soft drink crate. … [A]s he lay bleeding on the street, the attorney general of Alabama drove up and personally served him with an injunction barring future integrated rides.” Like most of the hundreds that joined him that summer, Mr. Lewis ended up in maximum security at Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary, where, it should be noted, special cruelty was reserved for white women, “whom Southern psyches placed in a (sexual) category of ‘nigger lover.’”
Proportional response, indeed: Lying in that Alabama street, the young John Lewis would have had to have been a special sort of ironist to imagine, some 40 years hence, himself chairing the House Ways and Means Committee, and Clinton protestors, without a whiff of shame, putting their grievances in an internecine delegate squabble on a par with the moral calamities of America’s apartheid South.
THOUGH HARDLY ITS FIRST intention, Breach of Peace arrives as something of a closing meditation on the five decades of stirring progress and unseemly conflation leading to the triumphs and absurdities of Hillary vs. Barack. The project is deceptively simple in the way glossy oversize photo books tend to be: Mr. Etheridge pairs 1961 mug shots of the Freedom Riders—archived by the deliciously named Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission—with contemporary black-and-white portraits: bus drivers, reporters, doctors and hippies, all aging. The image contrast is sharp and the accompanying text—biographical facts and first-person remembrances—terse: “They are true American heroes,” Roger Wilkins assures us in his preface.
Mr. Etheridge makes a point of the young Riders’ diversity. Half were white, half were black; two-thirds were of the student and clergy class termed “carpetbaggers” or “outside agitators,” and the rest native Southerners like John Lewis. But this demographic panoply is a bit of a red herring—leafing through the period photographs, the reader is struck most by a peculiar homogeneity. Not merely the crew cuts and horn-rimmed glasses, but the birth dates: With few exceptions, these agitators, outside and in, were born in 1941 or ’42. They were not the Greatest Generation. They were not Boomers.
They were, in short, less than a decade, and a universe, removed from the era of Hillary Rodham Clinton, from the proudly rancorous ’60s qua ’60s they bequeathed. Not a few of the 1961 Freedom Riders rode against the wishes—and worries—of their parents, but none confused such postadolescent rebellions with the political act itself. “I never asked my father and mother if I could go on the Freedom Rides,” the Rev. Reginald Green tells Mr. Etheridge, “for fear that they would say no. Out of respect, I would have honored their direction. Rather than have to face that, I just decided that I would go.”
No doubt inspired by these “true American heroes,” a Wellesley senior delivered a celebrated commencement address eight years later. It was, in a way, more radical than anything her Silent Generation precursors could have envisioned, a speech most preeningly rejectionist—of parents, of colleges, of the path-blazing black senator who had just spoken. “Every protest, every dissent,” Hillary Rodham told the crowd, “whether it’s an individual academic paper, Founder’s parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age.” Jim Crow, Vietnam, puberty, LSD: They are all the same struggle, because every success, every slight, feels the same to me.
THREE WEEKS AFTER THE hoopla at the DNC committee meeting, the latest polls find former Hillary supporters backing Obama more than three to one over McCain. Revolution averted. Still, it may behoove Mr. Obama’s young partisans to spend a few hours with Eric Etheridge’s fine book, and ponder the smoothness of the road from Freedom Ride heroism to Rules & Bylaws farce. Is it possible to fashion an epochal movement out of sterner, sturdier stuff than generational narcissism?
Yes, we can—and perhaps we will.
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Queens, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.