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Someone accessed the police archive following MLK’s death to struggle with a biro pen in writing the date of his assassination.
We all know the famous photograph by Charles Moore of MLK’s arrest in Montgomery, Alabama and perhaps one or two photographs of MLK imprisoned in Birmingham Jail; MLK’s letters and the civil rights education have made the narrative and context for MLK’s arrests well known.
That is why I think an intimate tale into the biography of this mugshot would be fascinating. Through whose hands has it passed? How has it’s meaning changed? Is the copy with the scrawls the only original copy? Where are the original prints now archived?
The answers are probably easy to find and I’m just thinking out loud here.
THOUGHTS ON MUGSHOTS
This blog-post is just yet another seedling to a potential chapter of a potential book on mugshots.
I don’t think I’m the one to write a book about mugshots but a few trends make it a visual territory in rapid flux. The current racket and sleazy business opportunities they afford; the mugshot as ubiquitous as Facebook profile pics; their role as photobook Objet d’art; and mugshots’ new-found glory as consumer items, all point toward changing ideas toward – and uses of – this old photographic form.
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. © Eric Etheridge
Today, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther Kings 1968 assassination, is an appropriate moment.
Firstly, a brief history of the Freedom Riders, as told by Etheridge:
In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred Americans — blacks and whites, men and women — entered Southern bus and train stations to challenge the segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters and bathrooms. The Supreme Court had ruled that such segregation was illegal, and the Riders were trying to force the federal government to enforce that decision.
Though there were Freedom Rides across the South, Jackson soon became the campaign’s primary focus. More than 300 Riders were arrested there and quickly convicted of breach of peace — a law many Southern states and cities had put on the books for just such an occasion. The Riders then compounded their protest by refusing bail. “Flll the jails!” was their cry, and they soon did. Mississippi responded by transferring them to Parchman, the state’s infamous Delta prison farm, for the remainder of their time behind bars, usually about six weeks.
A few days after the last group of Riders were arrested in Jackson, on September 13, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued new regulations, mandating an end to segregation in all bus and train stations.
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 (March 19 – June 12). Free to the public.
Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders installation, Mississippi Museum of Art, March 2011
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.
KING’S GIFT TO HISTORY; A POLITICAL PHILOSOSPHY NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN, ALWAYS TO BE ACTED UPON
And so to King, whose politics are as relevant today as they were 43 years ago. As 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.
James Earl Ray facing the wall at Shelby County Jail. Photo by Gil Michael/Shelby County Sheriff’s Office
As Etheridge explains this is not an act of defiance. 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.
TO END ON A GOOD NOTE
INSPIRATION, LOVE AND GOOD HEARTS ARE NOT FORGOTTEN BY HISTORY