In 1961, the "Freedom Fighters" banned together in Jackson, Mississippi to demonstrate against state segregation laws -- and for doing so, 328 people were arrested with the charge "breach of peace." Photographer Eric Etheridge pairs current portraits of these Freedom Fighters alongside their 1960's mug shots in an exhibit that is not to be missed.
Entering the show, visitors face a large room filled with about 40 portraits next to corresponding mug shots and textual information about the featured Freedom Fighters: when they marched, why they got involved, and what they are doing now. The current portraits of a now-more elderly crowd are about 4 times the size of the original mugshots they hang alongside. Etheridge captures a friendliness and warmth in his subjects, so that as visitors circle the room, they are drawn in to their faces and stories.
I walked around the exhibit and saw a mother and her son who was probably about 8 years old. As they moved from one pair of photos to the next, she would ask him, "now how old was he?" or "how old was she?" Almost all of the mugshots featured were taken of 18-21 year olds, with occasional mentor figures such as priests or professors in their 30's or 40's. The youngest mugshot portrayed Hezekiah Watkins, a 13 year old junior high student who continued his involvement in Mississippi and was arrested over 100 times more in the years to follow. Seeing the young boy viewing this exhibit and knowing that only 5 years separated him from Hezekiah was powerful. It is a reminder of what youth are capable of, what they are moved by, and what they will fight for.
Because Etheridge juxtaposes willful, posed portraits with forced mug shots that often stemmed from aggressive and brutal arrests, I had arrived thinking that there would be a stark contrast between the two. However, often those arrested wore slightly upturned smiles -- knowing smiles, holding direct eye contact, and definitive looks of pride, confidence, and purpose. It is here that something interesting takes place -- either Etheridge captivated this exact spirit in his current portraits or the Freedom Fighters mirrored and potentially mimicked that same look as they sat for him. This creates a strange and compelling feeling. The Freedom Fighters risked their lives and well-being to stand up for what they believed in, and their looks tell us so. But now, as Etheridge's portraits hang alongside their younger selves, it is as if those stares captured in the mugshots have time-travelled to the present, to this exhibit, and to the exact spot where they now hang to say, "told you so."
"Breach of Peace" captures the spirit of conviction and gave me goosebumps from the moment I walked in until hours after leaving. I highly recommend this to visitors of all ages and encourage teachers to incorporate it in their classrooms. After all, it could empower a new generation with teenage mentors whom we can all look up to.
Breach of Peace: Photographs of Freedom Riders by Eric Etheridge is on view now through April 11th at the Skirball Cultural Center. View photos and read more about the Freedom Fighters at the Breach of Peace Blog.
Docent-led tours run Tuesdays-Sundays at 1:00pm (with the exception of March 30th).
Skirball Cultural Center
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90049
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