James Zwerg was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. He studied sociology at Beloit College but developed an interest in civil rights after his roommate, Robert Carter, who was an African-American from Alabama, gave him a copy of Stride to Freedom to read. Zwerg later recalled: "I witnessed prejudice against him... we'd go to a lunch counter or cafeteria and people would get up and leave the table. I had pledged a particular fraternity and then found out that he was not allowed in the fraternity house. I decided that his friendship was more important than that particular fraternity, so I depledged." Zwerg decided to signed on for an exchange semester at the predominately black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Zwerg met John Lewis, who was active in the civil rights movement. Zwerg later recalled: "I was almost in awe of this young man. He was my age - 21 - but I had never met another person my age with his commitment. He exuded a quiet strength, almost an absolute certainty that he knew what he was doing -- very open and very honest." Lewis had been involved in staging a sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter with the intention of integrating eating establishments in Nashville.
In October, 1960, Lewis and students involved in these sit-ins held a conference and established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization adopted the Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action. Zwerg joined the SNCC and his first demonstration was at a "whites only" movie house. According to one account: "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."
Transport segregation continued in some parts of the United States, so in 1961, a civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, black and white volunteers sat next to each other as they traveled through the Deep South.
James Farmer, national director of CORE, and thirteen volunteers left Washington on 4th May, 1961, for Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The group were split between two buses. They traveled in integrated seating and visited "white only" restaurants. When they reachedAnniston on 14th May the Freedom Riders were attacked by men armed with clubs, bricks, iron pipes and knives. One of the buses was fire-bombed and the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death.
James Peck later explained what happened: "When the Greyhound bus pulled into Anniston, it was immediately surrounded by an angry mob armed with iron bars. They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital."
The surviving bus traveled to Birmingham, Alabama. A meeting of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee decided to send reinforcements. This included Zwerg, John Lewis, and eleven others including two white women. The volunteers realized their mission was extremely dangerous. Zwerg later recalled: "I called my mother and I explained to her what I was going to be doing. My mother's comment was that this would kill my father - and he had a heart condition - and she basically hung up on me. That was very hard because these were the two people who taught me to love and when I was trying to live love, they didn't understand. Now that I'm a parent and a grandparent I can understand where they were coming from a bit more. I wrote them a letter to be mailed if I died. We had a little time to pack a suitcase and then we met to go down to the bus."
During the Freedom Riders campaign the Attorney General,Robert Kennedy was phoning Jim Eastland “seven or eight or twelve times each day, about what was going to happen when they got to Mississippi and what needed to be done. That was finally decided was that there wouldn't’t be any violence: as they came over the border, they’d lock them all up.” When they were arrested Kennedy issued a statement as Attorney General criticizing the activities of the Freedom Riders. Kennedy sent John Seigenthaler to accompany the Freedom Riders.
The Freedom Riders now traveled onto Montgomery. Zwerg later recalled: "As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force - police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out - a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up."
The passangers were attacked by a large mob. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by men with baseball bats and lead piping. Taylor Branch, the author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988) wrote: "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 shoulders to view the carnage." Zwerg later argued: "There was noting particularly heroic in what I did. 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."
According to Ann Bausum: "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."
John Seigenthaler was knocked unconscious when he went to the aid of one of the passengers. James Zwerg, who was badly beaten-up claimed: "Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us on the Freedom Ride will continue.... No matter what happens we are dedicated to this. We will take the beatings. We are willing to accept death. We are going to keep coming until we can ride anywhere in the South."
The Ku Klux Klan hoped that this violent treatment would stop other young people from taking part in freedom rides. However, over the next six months over a thousand people took part in freedom rides. With the local authorities unwilling to protect these people, President John F. Kennedy sent Byron White and 500 federal marshals from the North to do the job. Robert Kennedy was a close friend of Governor John Patterson of Alabama. Kennedy explained in his interview with Anthony Lewis: “I had this long relationship with John Patterson (the governor of Alabama). He was our great pal in the South. So he was doubly exercised at me – who was his friend and pal – to have involved him with suddenly surrounding this church with marshals and having marshals descend with no authority, he felt, on his cities… He couldn’t understand why the Kennedys were doing this to him.”
During the summer of 1961 freedom riders also campaigned against other forms of racial discrimination. They sat together, in segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. This was especially effective when it concerned large companies who, fearing boycotts in the North, began to desegregate their businesses. Robert Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to draft regulations to end racial segregation in bus terminals. The ICC was reluctant but in September 1961 it issued the necessary orders and it went into effect on 1st November.
Later that year Martin Luther King presented Zwerg with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Freedom Award. After leaving Fisk University he attended the Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ.
Zwerg's activities had a major impact on his family: "My dad did have a mild coronary and my mother came close to having a nervous breakdown. One of the things that I have discovered since, after having had a chance to really talk with several of the others, is that almost all of us had some form of real emotional problems with family or personally, in one way or another. Some people had a really hard time - after having had such a tremendous support group and atmosphere of love - having to readapt... For years and years, I was never able to discuss it with my dad. He just... you could just see the blood pressure go up. I think my mother ultimately understood. I went through some psychotherapy when I was in seminary, just because of the anger that developed. Again, these people who loved me and taught me to love didn't love what I was doing when I put my life on the line. I had to wrestle with that and work it through."