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"Breach of Peace" at ArtRage

In the spring and summer of 1961, hundreds of Americans converged on Jackson, Mississippi, to challenge state segregation laws. They came to be known as the Freedom Riders, because they targeted bus and train stations where it was illegal to discriminate in facilities serving interstate commerce -- despite common practice in the South at that time. Over 300 people were arrested and convicted for "breach of peace." The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission carefully saved the police mug shots of these individuals and only recently released them.

The exhibition, "Breach of Peace," which opened Saturday at ArtRage Gallery, is a selection from Eric Etheridge's 2008 book of the same title. Etheridge located, interviewed and photographed 80 of the Freedom Riders. His book sets their 1961 mug shots side by side with his contemporary portraits and thumbnails of their subsequent lives drawn from the interviews, plus providing background about this phase of the Civil Right Movement. The inside of the book's dust jacket -- you could miss this -- recreates the full display of several hundred mug shots that covers much of one wall at ArtRage. The cumulative effect of these images is deeply moving -- young people looking steadily back at those who held them, a serene wisp of smile around some of their mouths. Decades later, many have the same clear-eyed, level gaze; you get a glimpse of what goes into the making of "an elder."

ArtRage curated the Syracuse exhibition by working directly with Etheridge. A larger, national touring exhibition, "Road to Freedom," opened in June 2008 at the High Museum of Art. That show has traveled to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, the Field Museum in Chicago, and is now on view at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The Bronx Museum serves as the final stop (March 28 - July 11).

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