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April 5, 2011

The Freedom Riders, the King Assassination and James Earl Ray’s Back

I’ve been meaning to write about Eric Etheridge’s project Breach of Peace for too long. Monday’s anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther Kings 1968 assassination lent an appropriate moment.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders and their key 1961 victory for civil rights. Etheridge’s book Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders features his new portraits of 80 Riders and the mug shots of all 328 Riders arrested in Jackson that year, along with excerpts of interviews with the featured Riders. (See the Breach of Peace archives here.) The Mississippi Museum of Art is showing the mugshots of all 329 Riders arrested in Jackson as a giant, 54′ long mural, along with 20 of Etheridge’s portraits.

Etheridge’s work is a continuing multi-year effort. Through interviews and his camera, Etheridge gives his subject the opportunity to return to their political heroics. For those alive in the sixties, Etheridge’s work is an antidote to historical amnesia and for those who weren’t it’s an education.

And so to King, whose politics are as relevant today as they were 43 years ago. As blogger Jim Johnson reminds us, at the time of his assassination:

King was in Memphis in solidarity with sanitation workers, who were striking the city not just for decent pay and working conditions but for recognition of their right to form a union. In light of the concerted, ongoing campaign by Republicans to subvert unions, it surely is plausible to wonder how far we remain from the promised land.

History is very important. Despite their self-label, progressives look back in time as readily as conservatives to pinpoint historical moments to justify their politics. Progressives look to the golden era of people power and the Peace Movement, conservatives hark back to the space-race and Reaganomics.

When history is at our backs, we must choose to leave it behind or let it propel us forward. In the case of the Civil Rights movement, its lessons should be forever in America’s conscience. The work toward social and economic equality is not yet complete, not by a long distance.

We have choices to make and a society to shape.

Which brings me to this potent image of the back of James Earl Ray, who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassin.

While hundreds of thousands were marching on the streets and millions across America swelled the turning political tides, James Earl Ray choose a different worldview.

Regardless of colour or creed, Martin Luther King’s promised land was for all … and for a better America. No doubt James Earl Ray was a troubled man but his rejection of America’s sea-change thrust him only in the direction of a dead-end.

As Etheridge explains, this is not an act of defiance. (Recorded to document his Memphis jailhouse treatment, an archive of original images were released just this week.) Shoved into a Shelby County Jail cell, Ray faces the reality upon him; the physical finality of confinement with nowhere to go. As he abandoned history, so history moved on without him.

– Pete Brook

cross-posted/adapted from Prison Photography

(photo 1: Gil Michael/Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. caption: James Earl Ray facing the wall at Shelby County Jail. photo 2: © Eric Etheridge. caption: Born: November 27, 1932; Philadelphia; Arrested July 30, 1961; Train station, Jackson; Then: Student, Santa Monica City College; Since then: Arts administrator, now retired; Then and Now: Marrried to Robert Singleton; Photographed: August 24, 2005; Los Angeles.)

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