News Column

New exhibit connects Freedom Rides to larger movement

May 25, 2014

By Allison Griffin, Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.

May 25--Telling the stories of those who participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961, in their own words, has been a goal of Montgomery'sFreedom Rides Museum since its grand opening three years ago.

So it's fitting that the title of this year's exhibit at the museum is "Travelin' Down Freedom's Main Line," a lyric from a black protest song that the riders sang on their way to fill up Mississippi's jails. The voices of those riders come to life in the text of a series of panels along the interior walls of the museum, with framed artwork and photographs to provide a visual connection to a time that is forever frozen in black-and-white mugshots.

But this exhibit also puts the Freedom Rides in the larger context of the civil rights movement.

"People will be coming for the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, so we want to give them something to show how these two events connect to the Freedom Rides," said Ellen Mertins with the Alabama Historical Commission. Mertins came up with the concept for the exhibit, did the research and wrote the script.

Her inspiration came in part from reading the 2008 book by journalist and photographer Eric Etheridge, "Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders." Etheridge found mugshots of those arrested in Mississippi, and photographed a number of them he was able to track down.

The Freedom Rides Museum has acquired a set of Etheridge prints for its collections; those prints and the 1961 mugshots, along with portions of the oral histories from the riders, make up a part of the current exhibit.

Also included are works of art, in various media by multiple artists, that offer different points of view and add a depth of meaning. There are several prints by Faith Ringgold, an African-American artist and activist known mainly for her painted quilts; a large narrative quilt created specifically for the museum by self-taught artist Nora Ezell; and local sculptor Charlie "Tin Man" Lucas' large interpretive bus, created from found scrap metal.

The exhibit explores several themes, from the riders' point of view: their commitment to non-violent action; what happened when they told their families of their involvement; what it was like to be in jail; and how the rides changed the course of their lives.

Flooding the jails

The Freedom Riders were seeking to end segregated facilities on interstate bus routes in the South. Attacks on riders at Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, among other places, made national headlines and built support for the civil rights movement.

An angry mob waited for the bus that arrived from Birmingham at the Greyhound bus station on Court Street in Montgomery on May 20, 1961; several of the riders were beaten.

As the movement grew, the focus shifted to flooding the jails in Jackson, Miss., and making racially segregated bus, train and air travel too costly to maintain. Riders from across the country and Canada poured into Mississippi; the majority of the rides aimed at Jackson launched from three cities -- Montgomery, Nashville and New Orleans.

The 84 people headed for Jackson from Montgomery came from all parts of the country, and were black and white, male and female. Much of the new exhibit focuses on these riders.

A large, rectangular billboard across one wall features the mugshots of all those riders who ended up arrested in Jackson, broken down by state and hometown.

"What we've found is really powerful is if people can say, 'Oh, I know that town.' So we've got all of these towns, all of these states, all of these faces, and it will ultimately fill the whole wall," Mertins said. Next year, the museum's exhibit will focus on those who came from Nashville and New Orleans.

The next generation

Three years in, the museum continues to draw visitors from not just Montgomery and Alabama, but from other parts of the country and other countries, said Christy Carl, site director of the state Capitol for the Historical Commission. She was helping to install the new exhibit at the Freedom Rides Museum last week.

The museum recorded 2,238 visitors in 2013, a slight increase over 2012, according to the Alabama Department of Tourism and Travel.

"I love that we have both the art and the more traditional exhibits -- more text and photos," Carl said. "You're able to reach people on a different level."

That's particularly important for the young people who visit, who are more than a generation removed from the civil rights era. Making the museum relatable to them is important, Carl said.

"Often we'll talk about bullying, and that's something they can relate to," she said. "In a sense, that's what the Freedom Riders were doing -- standing up to bullies."

They also understand that the rides were a young person's movement. Seventy-five percent of the Freedom Riders were younger than 30, and a large percentage were college-age, Carl said; the youngest rider was 13.

"They realize that not only did they change the world, they had to face some real danger in doing so."

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: The new exhibit, "Travelin' Down Freedom's Main Line," opened this weekend

WHERE: Freedom Rides Museum, 210 S. Court St.

WHEN: The museum is closed today, but will be open from 12-4 p.m. Monday. After Monday, the museum will be open on its regular schedule, 12-4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

SPECIAL EVENT: J. Mills Thornton III will sign copies of his book, "Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma" at 1 p.m. Monday.

DETAILS: Groups of 10 or more can tour by appointment. Call 242-3935 or log on to freedomridesmuseum.org

Read or Share this story: http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/life/2014/05/24/new-exhibit-connects-freedom-rides-larger-movement/9552391/

___

(c)2014 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)

Visit the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.) at www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters