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James Zwerg Recalls His Freedom Ride

Published in Beloit Magazine/Winter-Spring 1989
By Ann Bausum, '79

 

     Many of his Beloit classmates will remember James Zwerg, '62, and his highly visible role in the Freedom Rides of 1961. His part in this volatile time in American history was brought to our attention for the first time, however, by Taylor Branch's new Pulitzer Prize-winning history Parting the Waters. Branch's account of the Freedom Rides, which sought to test federal rulings that interstate bus passengers could not be segregated in transit or in waiting rooms, is a vivid reminder of just how much has changed in the 28 years since those rides and how much courage it took to participate in them. We decided to follow up with Zwerg and relive those days with the perspective of passing time. -- Editor

 
     First things first. "I'm no hero when compared to the other students and what they did," insists James Zwerg, '62.

     Humility and modesty run deep in Zwerg, whose first career was 10 years of service as a minister and who is now a manager with IBM in Tucson.

     Zwerg, originally from Appleton, Wis., went to the South during his junior year at Beloit College when he signed on for an exchange semester at the predominately black Fisk University in Nashville. His interest in attending a black institution developed through his friendship with Robert Carter, '62, his freshman roommate and one of a handful of black students at Beloit in the late 1950s.

     Zwerg, a sociology major who already had an interest in the ministry, was astonished at selected incidents of racism that he experienced through Carter at Beloit. Some fraternities refused to take black members, for instance, prompting Zwerg to de-pledge from his house and join the integrated Beta Theta Pi. He decided he wanted to experience life as a minority and chose Fisk as his setting.

     At Fisk, Zwerg was soon drawn to the Civil Rights movement and met John Lewis, a Fisk student who would also take part in the Freedom Rides. Lewis, now a U.S. congressman from Atlanta, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student-organized Civil Rights activist group. "I had never before encountered someone my age with such commitment," recalls Zwerg.

     Soon Zwerg was helping with civil disobedience workshops as an "antagonist," testing future demonstrators with the types of verbal abuse that could be expected on site. "All my childhood I had a pretty short temper," Zwerg admits. "I couldn't imagine being as calm as these people were able to be."

     So, when Zwerg was invited to "join the other side," he was reluctant for fear of being unable to restrain himself when tested with physical and verbal abuse. Still, he was discovering the unexpected power that can form in a group when its sum is greater than its parts.

     Zwerg decided to give it a try. His first demonstration was at a "whites only" movie house. Zwerg bought two movie-tickets, then handed one to an accompanying black man. When they tried to enter the theatre, Zwerg was hit with a monkey wrench, knocked out cold and dragged to the edge of the sidewalk.

     So began his efforts on behalf of Civil Rights. Zwerg participated in subsequent integration efforts at movie theatres and at lunch counters, and, when invited to become a member of SNCC, he joined.

     The first Freedom Ride was organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and departed from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. Thirteen riders were split between two busses with New Orleans as their destination. They traveled in integrated seating and patronized "whites only" snack counters without major incident until arriving at Aniston, Ala., where the first bus to arrive was attacked by a waiting mob.

     The bus retreated to the highway, pursued by mob members, and broke down on the road from damage done at the station. It was ultimately set afire, and Freedom Riders were beaten as they escaped the flaming vehicle. Pictures of the bus appeared internationally and focused worldwide attention on the riders.

     The second bus to arrive at Anniston was ultimately boarded by whites who beat up four Freedom Riders, two whites and two blacks, before the bus continued its journey to Birmingham still carrying the beaten riders and their attackers. It was welcomed at Birmingham by an angry mob of Ku Klax Klan members who had negotiated 15 minutes of violence without police intervention from sympathetic authorities. Freedom Riders were badly beaten and, once reunited with those from the first bus, ultimately fled Birmingham by airplane under tight security.

     John Lewis, who had participated in the first Freedom Ride as far as South Carolina, gathered with Zwerg and other SNCC members in Nashville to discuss what should be done. They agreed that the ride could not be allowed to stop and they should try and continue it from Birmingham. Volunteers were sought, and among those chosen to go was James Zwerg, the only white male. Accompanying him were two white females and nine black men and women.

     The volunteers realized their mission was extremely dangerous. Zwerg recalls writing his parents a letter that indicated he would probably be dead by the time they received it. Yet he also recalls that there was never a question in his mind of whether or not he should go.

     "My faith was never so strong as during that time," he says. "I knew I was doing what I should be doing."

     The group traveled by regular bus toward Birmingham without incident until it reached the Birmingham city limits where Zwerg and his black seating companion were arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. The bus, with the remaining Freedom Riders still aboard, was escorted into Birmingham where police first harassed the participants on the bus and then found themselves in the awkward position of having to defend them from the hostile mob in the station. Ultimately there were put under "protective custody"; the blacks were eventually driven to the Tennessee border and dropped off.

     Within three days of their original departure from Nashville, most of the group were reunited, including Zwerg. The group agreed to attempt to continue the ride by traveling to Montgomery along with additional student volunteers from Nashville. Their original bus was cancelled, so prospective passengers waited through the night at the Birmingham bus terminal under police protection from a mob that had swelled to 3,000.

     After further delays, the trip proceeded under incredible security, including aircraft protection, that had been arranged for at the insistence of the federal government. However, escorting forces were forbidden to cross the Montgomery city line, and the bus pulled into a terminal that was eerie in its stillness.

     In Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch records the chilling details of the violence that followed when several hundred rioters were permitted to range freely for ten minutes before police arrived to restore order. The Freedom Riders were variously thrown over the terminal ramp wall onto parked cars below, pelted with their luggage, dragged from taxis where they sought escape, and held down and beaten unconscious by groups of men and women who used bats, pipes, handbags and fists while crowds cheered them on.

     James Zwerg's post-riot photographs, which were published nationwide in Time, LIFE and Associated Press newspapers, recorded the results of his brutal beating.

     Branch writes: "One of the men grabbed Zwerg's suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg's head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shouldesr to view the carnage. A small girl asked what the men were doing, and her father replied, 'Well, they're really carrying on.'"

     The violence, amazingly, resulted in no deaths. Innocent blacks near the terminal were also beaten. So were journalists on hand to document the arrival and John Seigenthaler, aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had been sent South to assist the travelers.

     Zwerg was denied prompt medical attention at the end of the riot on the pretext that no white ambulances were available for transport. He remained unconscious in a Montgomery hospital for two-and-a-half days after the beating and stayed hospitalized for a total of five days. Only later did doctors diagnose that his injuries included a broken back.

     Zwerg, whose religious faith had been considerably strengthened by earlier Civil Rights efforts, recalls that his beating was preceded by "an incredible religious experience." Upon asking God for the strength not to fight back, Zwerg describes feeling "a peace that I've never experienced again in my life.

     There was noting particularly heroic in what I did," Zwerg concludes modestly at the end of his story. Then he adds: "If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died.

     "Now that was heroic. I'd been trained. I knew what I was getting into. I didn't just come in off the street and give my life for another human being like he might have. I didn't do anything that hundreds of others weren't doing."

     Even the incredible violence of Montgomery did not bring the Freedom Ride to an end, although the effort never drew as much attention - or violence - again. Subsequent trips led to systematic jailing of riders as supposed violators of state laws that tied up the movement's momentum in a tangle of state and federal maneuvering.

     When news of Zwerg's efforts reached Beloit College, students and faculty responded by drafting resolutions of support for his participation. Copies were circulated on campus and sent to the president of the United States and the governor of Alabama, among others.

     Zwerg's experience deepened his commitment to religion, which led him to Garrett Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill., and service as a minister in the United Church of Christ. He cites the Reverend Martin Luther King with helping him decide to enter the ministry during a half-hour meeting together when Zwerg was honored in 1961 with a "Freedom Award" by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

     Even though Zwerg ultimately changed his career, he comments that "the ministry will never be out of me entirely."

     His experience also left Zwerg with an unswerving commitment to non-violence. "I couldn't have served in the military after that," notes Zwerg, for example.

     Zwerg's parents had difficulty understanding their son's dedication to the cause of Civil Rights, and according to Zwerg, it took years to heal their relationship with him.

     The father of three children, Zwerg believes that "if my son or daughter had that commitment, I'd say 'God Bless.'" He adds, though, "I would worry. It would be tough."

     Zwerg was reunited with Lewis and another Civil Rights friend several years ago while on a business trip to Atlanta. He was brought up to date on many others by viewing the Public Broadcasting System's Civil Rights documentary, "Eyes on the Prize," which he praises for its accuracy and impact.

     Zwerg revisited Montgomery on the 25th anniversary of the Freedom Rides to take part in a Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary on them. At one point during filming, Zwerg was riding a bus into Montgomery. Although the film crew did not notice it, Zwerg was immediately struck by the fact that the driver of the bus was black and the passenger directly behind him was a young black man. Zwerg started a conversation with the black passenger and learned that he had never heard of the Freedom Riders or their reception in Montgomery.

     "Here was a young 16-year-old riding to Montgomery without a thought in his head about the Freedom Rides. Riding that bus was the most natural thing in the world for him to do." Zwerg asks rhetorically: "Did we accomplish something with our rides? You bet we did!"