Freedom Ride by Photographer Scott Roller

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


 

Freedom Ride


Immediately you notice that the eyes are the same. Photographer Eric Etheridge found a box of the 1961 mug shots of 328 Mississippi Civil Rights Freedom Riders, and created a book that coupled them with his present-day portraits and interviews. The photos in Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders show that many of their eyes still reflect the powerful combination of determination and kindness that their youthful images projected. A majority of them have continued their activism into their adult lives as community organizers, pastors, teachers, and congressmen. That their Freedom Ride experiences — testing southern interstate bus rides that were supposed to be racially integrated but were not — so profoundly affected the direction of their lives stayed with me. I wanted to see what their eyes had seen from the windows as the buses rolled from station to station.

Six months later, with a camera and maps of the nearly five thousand miles taken by the riders in the summer and fall of 1961, I am driving with my friend Aaron from Atlanta toward Birmingham. Aaron shares my human rights and equality background, and he enthusiastically leafs through the book of maps, reading aloud directions, history, and commentary as we roll on. There will be twelve trips in all, tracing nearly all of the original routes of the Freedom Riders through thirteen states and close to three dozen Greyhound and Trailways bus stations. Some towns embrace the history of the Riders with plaques and mapped civil rights walks. Others show no trace, except for the stories of some who were there and were happy to talk about what they saw. The images and stories that follow represent a small portion of the artifacts of those drives.

 

Anniston, Alabama

The Freedom Riders attack in Anniston was one of the most violent of all, beginning with the bus tires being slashed at the Greyhound station as it pulled out of town. Several miles later, the bus was firebombed. Riders fled to a field as the bus burned, providing one of the most indelible images of the Civil Right era. Finding the original Greyhound station building in downtown Anniston is proving to be elusive, though. During a conversation with a man at a convenience store, he points toward the next block and gives what proves to be insightful advice: “Go to where I get my hair cut, and the barber will tell you were to look. The black barbershops know the history, and they’ll help you.” City by city, at barbershops, bus stations, and train tracks, we ask and they remember.

The Anniston barber has a framed photo of the burning bus hanging behind his chair and points us to the sign shop that now occupies the former station. The store manager leads us through back rooms of the shop into what used to be the station’s waiting room and then out a side entrance. Standing in an alley, I snap 30 or 40 pictures of the door that used to be the segregated black-only entrance, a still solid-looking metal slab now chipped and stained, with white stripes over what the door used to say.

A block away, a conversation with an Environmental Protection Agency field office worker connects us to a family friend who directs us via cell phone to the spot where the bus burned: “See a used car lot on your right? Too far. Turn around.” We park, stand on a grassy slope, and he continues. “My family and I were driving back home from an out-of-town wedding when we saw the smoking bus. It was baking hot that day. We had picnic food and water with us, so we unloaded our car and took it to up to the riders in the field,” he says and pauses. “Some of our neighbors never forgave us for it. We paid for that for the next 30 years.”  

 

Jackson, Mississippi

Medgar Evers’ home sits on a sun-speckled street in peaceful silence, as if the neighbors are still shocked at what happened here. Jackson has two stops on the Mississippi Freedom Trail, one being the pristinely restored Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders were arrested for using white restrooms and waiting rooms. The second is NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Ever’s beige brick and turquoise plank ranch home, now a museum to the life of the man who was shot in the back as he walked across his front yard to greet his two young children in 1963.

The house seems frozen in time, a perfect early-60s artifact amongst neighboring homes with modern landscaping and halogen sidewalk lamps. But the silence hits us the moment we exit the car at the curb. It’s after 6:00 PM on a perfect-blue Friday. No playing children or barking dogs or kitchen televisions blasting local news; just calmness as we walk to the front porch and take several pictures of the white-on-black reflective 2332 house number and walk through the carport to the back yard. The neatness, the peacefulness of the carefully kept neighborhood makes the history even louder. We pause in the driveway before getting back into the car. Neither of us says a word.

 

Memphis, Tennessee

The two sleek-finned early-60s cars in an otherwise empty parking lot are the only signs that the Lorriane Motel in Memphis is more than a well-maintained forty-room relic. There is no obvious sign declaring The National Civil Rights Museum is inside or that one of its exhibits includes an original Freedom Riders bus. It’s before noon on a brilliant blue October day, and I’m wandering through the blocks beyond the motel museum, past a massive faded brick-wall mural advertising Krey’s Hot Sausage with an enormous American flag flapping close by.

I’m changing a camera lens as I weave through a train yard with crisscrossing tracks that overlap bridges and crumbling tunnels. Hearing another set of feet on the gravel, I look up to see a disheveled, bearded man in my path. He smiles kindly at me, glances at my camera, and says “Do you want to take the most incredible picture in the world?”

“Sure. Ah, absolutely,” I say, clicking my lens into place. He points to a bridge five hundred yards away. “Twenty years ago, I wrote a poem and painted it on that bridge,” he said. “The briars covered it up, but now they’ve cut all the weeds away and you can see it again. It’ll be the best picture you’ll ever take in your life.” I thank him and walk toward the bridge.

The smell of fresh-cut grass, weed-whip marks on the concrete supports, and piles of hacked thorn bushes prove a recent clean-up job. I look at one side of the bridge, then the other. No poem, or graffiti for that matter. I scramble up the slope to the tracks, and onto the top of the bridge. Not a word of poetry anywhere. The man has disappeared. Just barren tracks, the city skyline in the background, and wilting brush piles below.  

 

Baton Rouge. Louisiana

In many towns, being in the same space where the original bus station used to stand is the best you can hope for. At the Baton Rouge Greyhound Bus Station customer service counter a few blocks from downtown, an agent nods as we ask questions and says, “I know who can help you.” He dials a number and minutes later I am on the curb, leaning through the passenger-side window of Mr. Bailey’s sun-scorched yellow taxi. Mr. Bailey is around 70, black with short grey hair. He laughs and nods a lot.

“Oh yes, I remember,” he says. “That Freedom Riders bus was headed to McComb. But you won’t see what they saw at the Baton Rouge station.” The Trailways and Greyhound stations were in the same building in downtown Baton Rouge, he tells me, and “they closed the restaurant so the riders couldn’t eat.” The he chuckles and says, “and then in 1972 they tore it all down and built the county courthouse. I liked the justice of that.”

 

End of the Road

Bus stations in Chattanooga, Little Rock, St. Louis, Greensboro, Washington DC, and two dozen more cities followed. We talked to a community activist in Birmingham who pointed out the bullet holes in his van (he got in the middle of a gas station robbery), and an Alabama carpenter who told us the public park shelter he was working on was the site where Martin Luther King Junior first preached outside his home church. A dozen rental cars, two thousand pictures, and five weeks later, our ride ended with images of silos in stormy fields, intricate bus station neon, corrugated tin tobacco barns, and space-age motel signs … and the unforgettable stories of those who saw it happen, history still there for the asking, listening, and looking.


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Scott Roller grew up in Greenford OH, lives in Pittsburgh PA, and takes pictures everywhere. He has snapped shots in 40 countries, and prints, mats, and frames his own work. He has shown photographs at The Carnegie Museum of Art, The Andy Warhol Museum, Epcot Center, and Imagebox; “Airstream Flag” (from the SOUTH Freedom Riders series) was a juried entry in the Boston Online Biennial and part of a digital production at the 54th Venice Biennale. He is a member of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, has been involved with human rights and equality work for two decades, and is grateful to HEArt Online for this opportunity. scottroller.com