In the photograph taken at his incarceration, the Rev. James Breeden has the appearance of a young scholar. He is a handsome man: clean-shaven, his hair buzzed to a conservative length, his thin-rimmed glasses shining in the flash of the cameras bulb. Around his neck are two items: a stiff white clerical collar and a chain, on which hangs a sign reading, “Police Dept. Jackson, Miss. 21368." The date of the photo was September 13,1961. A tumultuous summer was just coming to a close.
Five years earlier such a situation would have seemed farfetched to Breeden. Black identity on campus was literally quarantined, with Breeden and the two other African-American men assigned a mandatory living situation in the only room at the top of Topliff Hall. They would awake sometimes to racist notes left outside their door. "We didn’t even consider protesting that," Breeden says. "We just accepted it as what one would expect at an institution like Dartmouth." At a national debate tournament held by a then-segregated Johns Hopkins University, he was asked quietly by his coach to sit out.
After his 1960 ordination, he joined a group of Episcopalians wanting to assert the church’s role in the civil rights movement. By riding buses into the heart of the segregated South that spring, the Freedom Riders looked to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in interstate commerce. For the early Freedom Riders of 1961 the consequence of this failure was the persistence of hostile, often violent, racism. Breeden’s group came to the South in midsummer, after the peak of a heated period of confrontation in May. On a ride intended to go from New Orleans to Detroit, they paused at the Trailways bus terminal in Jackson, Mississippi. Part of the group, Breeden included, got off of the bus and walked into the segregated terminal. “We knew what would happen when we went in and didn’t leave when ordered to," Breeden says. The Jackson city police arrested 15 riders. Previous Freedom Riders sent to Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, were beaten and put in with violent criminals. The group with Breeden had to endure only Jackson’s austerity: bunk beds with no mattresses for the six days before the state court overturned the charges.
Breeden and a fellow rider brought a federal suit against the Jackson chief of police and the presiding judge, charging the two with denying them their civil rights. The decision, partially upheld in court, began an eight-year period of civil rights protests organized and led by Breeden in and around Boston. Later he went on to hold a position on the faculty for the social policy program of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in 1969 and to earn his doctorate in education administration in 1972. From 1984 to 1995 Breeden served as dean of the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth, where he found the campus "radically changed."
Now a reverend with the Episcopal Church, he lives in Leyden, Massachusetts, with his wife, Jeanne and looks back on his participation in the rides with pride tempered by experience. "Our goals were not on Jack and Robert Kennedy’s agenda when they first took office—and Dartmouth was certainly not militantly against segregation, in fact they were complicit with it— but these issues were forced onto their agenda by the nonviolent actions of the civil rights movement".