Today I picked up, and spent the day perusing, a wonderful new book, Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, by Eric Ethridge. It is simple and powerful. It lays out, in stark black and white, the mug shots of 328 brave men and women who between May 24th and September 13th, 1961, boarded integrated interstate buses, and headed into the heart of darkness to begin the dismantling of segregation in interstate travel. It then follows up with the detailed stories of many of them, including current pictures and data on their later lives and careers.
The courage and conviction of these mostly young people, black and white, is stirring to read about once again. They endured savage beatings, bloodied and broken bodies, cracked skulls and intense humiliation, and most ended up serving time in Mississippi jails and state prison.
But it is the pictures that moved me the most. The plain mugshots of these brave freedom fighters as they were booked into Southern jails for the "crime" of race-mixing, the simple act of associating with another human being on an equal basis who happened to have a different skin color. (One Freedom Rider, Joan Pleune, who was then a senior at Cal-Berkeley, had a deep tan at the time and was mistakenly placed in the "colored" cell-block until jailers later realized she was the sister of another white Freedom Rider arrested a few day earlier, who was in the white cells. "It really just showed you how silly it all was," she recalls.)
One of the most striking mugshots is that of Helen Singleton, then a 29 year-old Freshman at Santa Monica City College, who was arrested along with her husband, Robert. Her face bears a smile that is proud, dignified and utterly disarming. (Her current photo is much the same.) To me, it seems to be saying to her jailers, "You may think you have ultimate power over me, but I know something you don't: It's over. This old world is gone. Starting today. There's a new world being made, and I'm part of it." Helen Singleton went on to graduate from UCLA, and then get a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Loyola, and spent much of her later life developing courses and programs in the arts and humanities. Her husband Robert earned at Ph.D. and taught at UCLA for many years and later headed the Economics department at Loyola Marymount, where he still teaches.
In a week or so, I will leave for Denver, where I will proudly cast my vote as a delegate for Senator Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. As I do so, I will be thinking of Helen and Robert Singleton, and their fortitude forty-seven years ago. Without it, and those of hundreds like them, neither Barack Obama, nor I, nor any American, would have the freedom and opportunity to do what we will be doing in Denver.