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Thank you, Freedom Rider

Jim Zwerg, a white Wisconsin student, nearly died in ’61 alongside John Lewis to fight racism in the South

A cab driver. A suitcase. Fisk University.

In 1961, that combination was a combustible mix.

That year, Jim Zwerg was a bespectacled 21-year-old white college student from Wisconsin who was unabashedly idealistic and admittedly naive. And Nashville, Tennessee, was downright balmy compared with the cold and snow he left behind in Wisconsin.

When Zwerg arrived at the Nashville train station, he landed a cab for a trip across town. That’s when he noticed something peculiar. Much to his surprise.

“The driver wouldn’t put my suitcases in the trunk of his cab,” Zwerg told The Undefeated.

Why not?

“Because I told him I was going to the campus at Fisk.”

The cab driver was white; Fisk was a historically black institution.

Zwerg paid the few dollars for the fare when he arrived on campus. The cab driver opened the trunk; Zwerg had to retrieve his own luggage. By then, he had figured out the cab driver’s routine that was based on location in the city.

In the early 1960s, Fisk shared a student exchange program with Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. Zwerg, a sociology major, arrived that January as a participant for the new semester. However, by the time he left Nashville, Zwerg’s photo became a poignant and horrific symbol of the civil rights movement.

Like a pledge joining a fraternity, Zwerg found himself a member of the Freedom Riders, a kinship of mostly black college men and women who valiantly tried to desegregate interstate bus travel and terminals in the South.

The Freedom Riders movement was formed to pressure the federal government to vigorously enforce the Supreme Court decision from the 1960 Boynton v. Virginia ruling that stated segregated interstate bus travel was unconstitutional.

During a Freedom Ride trip to Montgomery, Alabama, Zwerg was brutally beaten by a mob of violent white segregationists. Photos of his blood-spattered face as he lay in a hospital bed were published in newspapers across the country.

Jim Zwerg, a "freedom rider" recuperates in hospital on May 21, 1961 in Montgomery, Ala. after he was beaten by a mob at the bus station yesterday. Zwerg, 21 years old ministerial student, suffered cuts and bruises and lost several teeth in the attack.

Jim Zwerg, a “freedom rider” recuperates in hospital on May 21, 1961 in Montgomery, Ala. after he was beaten by a mob at the bus station yesterday. Zwerg, 21 years old ministerial student, suffered cuts and bruises and lost several teeth in the attack.

AP Photo/Horace Cort

The picture made the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser. Video of him at the hospital, with that edition of the Advertiser newspaper atop his chest while he spoke to the media, was aired on national television news. In today’s lexicon, one James Zwerg from Appleton, Wisconsin, went “viral.”

He was a tall, white guy with short light brown hair from the North who ended up bonding with a determined black-dominated movement bent on changing the old Jim Crow customs of the segregated South. His father was a dentist, his mother an English teacher; they taught him to honor the Christian faith and not to mistreat people based on race.

In 1961, coincidentally the year President Barack Obama was born, Zwerg experienced life-altering events. While he was on that train, peering through the window at the countryside and eating a “very dry hamburger” as he headed to Nashville, Zwerg had no idea he soon would become a prominent social activist as part of a revolution of civil disobedience.

Looking back, Zwerg, now 77, recalled: “I didn’t go down there with the intention of being a demonstrator.”

He went to Tennessee and a movement found him.

And Zwerg found a cause he could support with all his fervor.

He is similar to Colin Kaepernick, the Afro-wearing quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who has rocked the sporting world because of his refusal to stand for the national anthem as he protests perceived social injustices directed toward people of color in the United States.

A bus bearing Freedom Riders leaves the station as they resumed their rides through the South testing integration following the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia, May 15, 1961, Montgomery, Ala.

AP Photo

However, Zwerg, in observing Kaepernick’s actions, pointedly said the young gung-ho NFL player needs a better game plan.

Asked to compare 1960s-style civil disobedience with that of today, Zwerg said: “Kaepernick is entitled to do what he wants to do. I guess I would say the demonstrations in the 1960s were more nonviolent, direct action. I think his actions are more passive.

“I’ve heard where he gave a million dollars to community organizations; that’s great. But I don’t see him getting involved in direct action. I don’t see where kneeling down during the national anthem is doing that. Why doesn’t he get a group of 49ers and go speak with students in the community about issues, like police brutality? More direct action.”

In assessing street activism and protests in general, he added, “A lot of demonstrations of today seem to have lost focus when it comes to nonviolence. A lot of protesters today seem to be doing it more for popularity and attention.”

Zwerg had never been in a classroom with a black student from grades 1 through 12 in Wisconsin, though he had interacted with black kids from Milwaukee during Boy Scouts functions. At Beloit, one of his roommates was black, an experience that opened his eyes to racial inequities. That’s when he decided to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Enter Fisk.

“My main reason for going to Fisk,” Zwerg said, “was that it gave me an opportunity to mirror the experiences of my black roommate at Beloit. Fisk was my first time being a minority. I wanted to know how I would be treated. It was a self-awareness and self-growth kind of thing.”

Zwerg’s indoctrination into the civil rights movement began when a couple of Fisk students suggested he attend nonviolence workshops produced by their revered mentor, James Lawson, then an activist-student at Vanderbilt University’s School of Divinity. One of Lawson’s tenets: “Don’t allow violence to stop a nonviolent movement.”

Appalled by the racial mistreatment he witnessed against black students in the segregated South, Zwerg was eager to make a difference.

Zwerg spoke of how in the 1960s, demonstrators and marchers contributed to the cause in a variety of ways — from disseminating newsletters about the movement to assisting senior citizens to beautifying communities on a grassroots level. The activists, many of them college students like Lawson, represented the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization headed by James Farmer that sponsored the Freedom Rides.

And Zwerg spoke of the day he met John Lewis, one of CORE’s young leaders.

First, they both had hair back then.

Lewis was based in Nashville at the time, attending seminary school at American Baptist Theological Seminary before earning a religion and philosophy degree at Fisk. The two met in 1961 when Zwerg and a group of black and white college students tried to desegregate a movie theater in downtown Nashville.

As part of the fashion of the 1960s civil rights movement, the men wore suits at the theater; the women wore dresses. That was by design. “One of the reasons why white people said they didn’t want to sit beside us wasn’t because we were black,” Bernard Lafayette, a black Freedom Rider, now 76, told The Undefeated. “They said it was because we were ‘dirty.’ So we put on what we called our ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ clothes.”

In those days, white patrons were required to sit on the ground level while black moviegoers were forced to access the theater through a side entrance and head up staircases to watch movies from the balcony.

The demonstrators would conduct “stand-ins,” as in black and white college students standing in line together in an effort to enter the theater together.

Lewis, now a U.S. congressman from Georgia, was the E.F. Hutton of the CORE activists; when he spoke, they listened. A man of quiet but stately confidence and dignity.

“You had more dynamic members, like Jim Bevel, Diane Nash, Angie Butler, Bernard Lafayette and Joe Carter,” Zwerg recalled. “Some people were much more vocal than John. But when John spoke, he had everyone’s attention. He was the voice of reason. He had a deep faith, an absolute commitment to nonviolence. I remember he told me if I wanted to talk to him further, meet him at church.”

“Freedom Riders” sit beside a burned-out Greyhound bus they had ridden which was burned by a mob of white people who attacked it on the highway. The Freedom Riders were testing laws desegregating bus terminals.

Getty Images

Lewis, who attended a public reunion with Zwerg in Wisconsin in 2015, said of his fellow Freedom Rider regarding their noble cause, “We became brothers in a struggle. We are tied together. We gave blood together.”

They fought the signs that said “Colored Waiting Room,” designated in one spot, and “White Waiting Room,” marked for a separate area. As Lewis said during a news conference last year, thanks to the Freedom Riders, “Those signs came tumbling down.”

Lewis was a stickler for the required training in nonviolence and passive resistance. The Freedom Riders had to meet the age requirement of 21. They were taught how not to fight back, how to handle racial insults from those fiery white mobs and deal with physical assaults.

Zwerg and Lewis were seatmates during the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery on May 20, 1961. That trip was a game-changer.

The Freedom Riders were greeted by angry white folk and Ku Klux Klan members armed with bricks, baseball bats, metal tools, chains and pipes.

Zwerg, who departed the bus first, was a focal point because he was white. He was viewed as a “nigger-lover,” a “traitor” and a “turncoat.” Bruised and battered, his teeth were loosened, he suffered swollen and black eyes. Blood streamed down his face and onto his polyester-blend suit. Because he wore contact lenses that day, the blunt-force trauma from being hit by metal objects dislodged his contacts, injuring his eyes. Two of his vertebrae were broken.

“I’m the one who told him that he was knocked over the railings five times at the Greyhound bus station,” said Lafayette, a Fisk graduate who now works as an international training instructor of techniques in nonviolence and conflict resolution. “They knocked him over the rail, picked him up and knocked him over the other side. Back and forth. Punching him with their fists over and over. He was unconscious. He didn’t even know what was going on. He was lucky to live.”

Photos of the bloodied Zwerg appeared in such national magazines as Time and Life.

“I just happened to get my picture taken,” Zwerg said, “after getting beat up. A lot of people got beaten up that day.”

While lying in bed at St. Jude’s Catholic Hospital, Zwerg told the television media, “We will take hitting and we will take beatings.”

Afterward, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. declared during a news conference that the Freedom Rides would continue to Mississippi, stating, “These students are willing to face death, if necessary.”

King later presented Zwerg with a Freedom Award from the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

King, already memorialized with a sculpture on the National Mall in Washington D.C., is a significant focus of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Freedom Riders are recognized in the Dr. King/Civil Rights Movement exhibit sections.

Zwerg could not attend the opening ceremony of the museum. He has mostly curtailed any long-distance jaunts, especially by airplane. “Thank God for pain pills,” he said. Zwerg suffers from arthritis, stenosis and back discomfort stemming from the beating he suffered at the hands of the vicious mobs in 1961. “When you ride a plane for five hours,” Zwerg explained, “it’s difficult when I get back. I can’t walk for two days.”

Zwerg and his wife, Carrie, live in a cabin in a virtual wilderness in Ramah, New Mexico, about 135 miles west of Albuquerque. He feeds the deer that wander nearby without fear. The grocery store is 50 miles away. Zwerg lives the calm, retired life after a versatile career as a minister and various positions in community relations and with charity organizations.

“Yep, that’s my dad,” son John Zwerg told The Undefeated. “He likes his afternoon naps.”

But back in the day, Jim Zwerg was most active . . . for a purpose.

“He wasn’t hung up on being white,” Lafayette summarized. “He demonstrated that by his participation — going to Fisk University, a black school in the South, when he had many other options, spoke for itself.

“He showed a good deal of courage and commitment. For him, it was personal because he wanted to make a difference to make things better.”

Zwerg spoke highly of the character of his “brothers and sisters in the movement.” He added that, despite his troublesome health and traveling issues, he would brave a trip for a Freedom Riders reunion.

“I would find some way to be with the folks I met in Nashville,” he said. “We still have that bond. Every person with you was giving you their strength.”

A bond of strength that started at Fisk University 55 years ago.

Gregory Clay is an editor, writer and television/podcast commentator focusing on current news events. Based in Washington D.C., he has worked at Newsday and McClatchy and once gave a speech at a convention for the Texas State Bar Association.