The Mississippi Museum of Art is throwing an opening reception tonight for my show, Breach of Peace: Portratis of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders. The mugshots of all 329 Riders arrested in Jackson in the spring and summer of 1961 are on view in a giant, 54' long mural (partial view above), along with about 20 of my portraits.
The museum sits virtually on the site of the Trailways station, where many of these Riders were arrested.
5:30 to 7. Come on down.
The wall is 54' long and 18' tall, and the focal point of the museum's great hall, which has some fancy donor name. I think of it as the Dunlap Wall, since it is normally the home of a great Bill Dunlap mural.
In a sense, the mug shots have now come full circle. The museum sits virtually on the site of the Trailways station, where many of the Riders were arrested.
The conference table in the foreground is in place for a meeting Saturday of the local group organizing Return of the Freedom Riders, the 50th Anniversary celebration in Jackson May 22 -26.
At least three of the Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 had managed to survive or escape the Holocaust as children.
Alex Weiss (above) was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1936, and emigrated with parents and sister in 1940.
In May 1940 they arrested my father. There was one line that said, “You’re going to the camps.” Another line, if you signed over your house, your possessions, your business, they would give you an exit visa. My father signed everything over, and the next day, he gathered me and my sister and my mother together but left his sisters and my grandmother there, because we only had exit visas for the immediate family. We got on a train to go to Trieste and had made arrangements to be on the Saturnia. I don’t know the exact details, but my aunts and my Grandma all stayed, and they all went to the camps and died. Well, there were two aunts that got out, but he had six sisters, and four of them didn’t make it.
The other thing that’s really traumatic that I remember is that after we got to Trieste, we were supposed to wait there for two weeks to get on the Saturnia, a passenger ship, to go to New York.
We were in a hotel room for those two weeks, and I remember we weren’t allowed to go out, because Trieste was full of Black Shirts and Gestapo and what have you. We only spoke German, but my father, who had traveled widely in Italy as a wine-press salesman, spoke fluent Italian and could pass as Italian. So he would go out. I remember I was climbing the walls, and my sister as well, she was only 2.
Finally my father said, “Okay, I’ll take you out and buy you an ice cream or whatever, but you cannot open your mouth and speak, because if you speak German, there might be somebody who notices that and figures we’re refugees and might send us back.”
I said, “I promise I won’t way a word.”
I remember going to this big piazza. My father bought me a whirligig, and he talked Italian to the guy. There was hundreds and hundreds of pigeons in this plaza, and all of the sudden they all flew up at the same time, and I shouted to my father in German, “Look, Papa, the pigeons!” and he looked at me and slapped me.
I cried, of course, but I was more scared seeing the look on my father’s face. My father was frightened, and that’s the first time I felt that, “My God, you know, I’m on my own. Even my father is even scared.” I felt guilty that, now they’re gonna take us back. Well, they didn’t but – I remember that very distinctly.
Weiss and his family made it out of Trieste to New York, and then on to San Francisco, where they resetteld.
I grew up in the Fillmore District, which was like the Harlem of San Francisco, but at the time it was fairly mixed. It was primarily black, but with lots of refugees. There was a little Jewish section with Jewish delis and Jewish poultry areas and so on, and I went to school with, you know, black buddies. After high school, I joined the Navy, two years active duty, from '55 to '57, and I had a lot of black shipmates who were friends.
When the Freedom Riders were attacked in Alabama, I was outraged. I just couldn’t believe it. And one of my motivations for joining CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality] and volunteering to go on the Freedom Rides was that I did not want to be one of those good Germans who just looked the other way.
I remember reading in the papers about the Anniston bus burning and that CORE was looking for Freedom Riders. So one day I went down to the CORE office in San Francisco and said, “I’d like to join,” and volunteered to go on the Rides.I told my father. He was totally against it: “You’re gonna get killed. It’s not us this time. It’s the schvartzes.”
I said, “Hey, you know, this is what happened to you. I’m not gonna stand by.”
That whole idea -- if you see evil and do nothing about it you are a participant in it -- I really believed that.
Freedom Rider Mimi Real was arrested at the Trailways Station in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 21, 1961. At the time she was a sophomore at Swarthmore College. Today she lives in the Bay Area and works as an administrator in a private school.
We all gathered at the Montgomery [Alabama] bus station [on June 21]. There was some more excitement at the station because, of course, everybody knew who we were, and there was much scurrying around of law enforcement people. The first thing we learned was that there had been a bomb scare on the bus that we were supposed to get on. So the police had to come in and search the bus. And, of course, there wasn't anything on the bus.
Then the other thing that happened – I can't remember what order these things happened – is the bus driver, whose shift that was, showed up, realized what he was gonna be doing, and promptly turned around and went home. So there was additional delay, while they rounded up another driver.
Then we all got on the bus. The bus driver kept insisting that the whites all sit in the front and the blacks sit in the back. We refused and all sat in the back. This was a milk-run — the bus stopped at every little cow town in Alabama and Mississippi. The poor bus driver, I guess he figured he was stuck with us, but he sure wasn't gonna get in any trouble. So he made it quite clear that we were not allowed to get off the bus.
We couldn't go to the restroom. We couldn't buy anything to eat. But we were fine with that. But then, in one of the many stops in the middle of nowhere, a lovely black man, probably in his 20s or early 30s, got on, and he had this huge picnic basket of food.
His mother or whoever he had just been visiting had packed it for him, knowing that he probably wasn't gonna be able to go into any of these little bus stops along the way, and had packed him enough food to feed an army. And he got to chatting with us, and when he learned that we hadn't anything to eat, he insisted on giving us his entire picnic basket.
So we feasted on fried chicken and all kinds of stuff. And included in this feast was a chocolate layer cake in this big cake box. We ate everything else, but we decided to save the cake. And I was somehow given the responsibility of holding onto the cake. Other than that, the bus ride was totally uneventful.
There was no crowd at all when we arrived at the Trailways station [in Jackson]. The police were there and it was almost perfunctory. As we drove past the front of the bus station, we saw that there was a paddy wagon, a Black Maria, sitting in front. The bus driver insisted that everybody get off the bus first before we got off. Then we got off, and we all filed into the white-only waiting room. The police were waiting for us. The whole thing was very engineered. There weren’t supposed to be any surprises.
We went through this little song-and-dance routine. They asked us to move on. We didn't. And they said that two or three times, and said they'd have to arrest us if we didn't move, and we didn't move. So they put us all under arrest. We had come in the back door of the waiting room, and then we just walked out the front door right into the paddy wagon, me still clutching the cake. I still had that cake with me when I got to the Hinds County Jail, where we ate it.
In 1962 Real returned to the South to work as a CORE volunteer for more than a year on voter registration projects in southern Louisiana. In 1966, about a year after the Voting Rights Act had been signed into law, she returned to the parish where she had worked to see the changes the new law had brought about.
I was totally totally blown away. By this time virtually everybody who could register was registered and there were elections in progress and blacks were running for office. The one scene that crystallized the change for me was a mass meeting in a Masonic Hall somewhere in the boonies in West Feliciana Parish. There was a mass meeting and it was candidates night. The place was packed, standing room only, and who was there to speak but the sheriff, who was running for re-election.
Now this was the same guy who had arrested a lot of them and who had harassed them and under whose watch all manner of things had gone on. There had been all kinds of harassment at that very same Masonic Hall there when we’d had our voting clinic meetings there years before. He gets up in front of this group to plead for their vote. That scene was the fairy tale ending. It’s not that everybody lived happily ever after, but that scene to me vindicated everything we had done.
The poor guy. I can vividly feel what I felt then, almost being embarrassed for him. It was the most painful thing he’d ever had to do in his life. Get up in front of a room of whatever he thought this was a room full of and be at the begging end.
Everybody knew exactly who he was but nobody was rude, nobody heckled him. They gave him polite applause afterwards; of course everybody kind of cluck clucked to each other. Everybody thought it was very funny. He obviously couldn’t say very much—“I did a fine job of beating you over the head”—so he just said he’d appreciate their votes and he’d be sure that the law was enforced fairly.
By this time the black power movement was in full swing in most of the rest of the country. Not that they were black power people in West Feliciana, but they all had televisions and they all saw Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael and all these people speak. They were all charged up. My feeling then was, okay they’ve arrived in the 20th century, I can leave now. There was a bittersweet element, in the sense that the fight to get registered and vote was so morally clear-cut. It was so clear who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. That battle had been won, and they were now joining the messy world of politics in a democratic republic, where it's no longer good versus evil or black versus white, but it's lots of shades of gray.
Mimi Real photographed in 2007.
mimi thi nguyen writes:
Originally published in the photo collection Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freed Riders, this archival police photograph of then 19 year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has been making the rounds. There is much debate about what troubling discourses of race and beauty might be operating in its reception right now, as there should be — the manifold dangers in conflating beauty with truth, or in attributing to whiteness a special heroism, are real and run deep.
But I admit that I keep looking too. Why? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s notion of the photograph’s punctum, “that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Camera Lucida, of course). For me, it’s the flower on her label catching in its petals the chain from the police identification board hanging around her neck, after her arrest. Evoking both vulnerability and defiance, that “minor” sartorial detail, as Barthes puts it, bruises me, is poignant to me.
Martial Buisson and Adrien Blondel are two guys from Paris now traveling the states -- in large part via RV -- to make a documentary about the Freedom Riders. From DC through the South to LA and back to DC. If you see them, say hello!http://www.ihaveadream.over-blog.org/