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 sign 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 on to 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."
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!"
Q: You got involved in the Freedom Rides...
Zwerg: Well, we got word on the CORE Freedom Ride, and we knew that John Lewis, a member of our organization, was going to be involved in it. We got word of the burning in Aniston... we had a meeting long into the night as soon as we heard about it. The feeling was that if we let those perpetrators of violence believe that people would stop if they were violent enough, then we would take serious steps backwards. Right away the feeling was that we needed to ride. We called Dr. King, we called James Farmer. There was an awareness that our phones were being tapped, so the feeling was that they knew what we were about to do. Our plan was different from CORE's. Whereas they chartered their buses, we were just going to get tickets and get on the bus. We felt that was even more important -- to buy a ticket just like any other traveler. We weren't getting a special bus, we were just going to get on the bus.
It was decided that we would send twelve people. I was one of 18 that volunteered to go. I've been asked why I volunteered to go... I would have to say, at that moment, it wasn't even a question. It was the right thing for me to do. I never second-guessed it.
Q: How did you prepare?
Zwerg: After we had talked it out and I was one of those chosen to go, I went back to my room and spent a lot of time reading the bible and praying. Because of what had happened in Birmingham and in Aniston, because our phones were tapped... none of us honestly expected to live through this. 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.
Q: What was the journey like?
Zwerg: We just got the tickets and got on the bus. I was going to sit in the front of the bus with Paul Brooks. Paul sat by the window; I sat by the aisle. The rest of the blacks and one white girl, Celine McMullen, were going to sit in the back.
It was an uneventful ride until we got to the Birmingham city limits. We were pulled over by the police... They came on the bus and said, "This is a Freedom Rider bus, who's on here from Nashville? And the bus driver pointed to Paul and myself. They came up and really started badgering Paul, you know, "Get up... why aren't you in the back of the bus?" And he said he was very comfortable where he was. So they placed him under arrest. And they asked me to move so they could get to him... and I said, "I'm very comfortable where I am too."
We were both placed under arrest, taken off the bus, seated in the squad car for I don' t know how long. Finally they took us to Birmingham Jail and fingerprinted us. They put me in solitary for a little while. Then they put me in with a fellow who was a felon. I mean, I'm in my suit and tie and I've got my pocket bible with me. I think he thought I was some clergyman making calls. Ultimately they threw me in a drunk tank, with about twenty guys in various states of inebriation, and announced in no uncertain terms that I was a ******-lover for the Freedom Riders. Here he is, boys, have at him! I didn't know what was going to happen and I kind of said, "How do you guys feel about this? Do you know what they're talking about?" And they started asking me some questions.
One of the things we agreed on is that if you were jailed, number one, you go on a hunger strike, because in our minds we were jailed illegally. You don't cop a plea, you don't pay the bail and jump. You stay. But here I was. One single white guy. And I didn't know what had happened to Paul. I didn't know what had happened to the rest of the people on the bus. I began to see the state that some of drunks were in, and I tried to get some towels and clean up the guys who were sick. I just got talking to some of them and none of them ever laid a hand on me. Basically, we talked about what I believed and what they believed.
I discovered that since the South was predominately Baptist, Catholics were kind of looked down on at the time. Surprisingly, 19 of the 20 guys in the drunk tank were Catholics! So we kind of had something more in common than they realized.
Q: Were you able to contact the other riders?
Zwerg: Frequently, music was the way we communicated in jail. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On has beautifully lyrics...
Paul and Sylus bound in jail
got nobody to go our bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
I sang it for my cellmates and they liked it. So I got probably ten of these guys singing with me. They had taken all the rest of the people on the bus into protective custody, and I had heard them singing. Now they could hear this group singing, and know I was okay.
We still had to go to mess even though you didn't eat. One day a fellow came in who was quite sick and I smuggled a sandwich back to the cell for him. I didn't know that act was punishable by three months in jail. But by giving him a sandwich -- suddenly I was a good guy and nobody was going to lay a hand on me. So the two and a half days that we were in jail were fine. We got to know each other. We talked. When I was in court I was really pleased that a number of these guys came over to me and said, "Jim, we really don't agree with you, but we wish you all the best."
Q: What were your thoughts as you rode on the bus?
Zwerg: 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.
Q: You were attacked when you arrived at the bus station?
Zwerg: The idea had been that cars from the community would meet us. We'd disperse into these cars, get out into the community, and avoid the possibility of violence. And the next morning we were to come back to the station and I would use the colored services and they would go to some of the white services -- the restroom, the water fountain, etc. And then you'd get on the bus and go to the next city. It was meant to be as non-violent as possible, to avoid confrontation as much as possible.
Well, before we got off the bus, we looked out and saw the crowd. You could see things in their hands -- hammers, chains, pipes... there was some conversation about it. As we got off the bus, there was some anxiety. We started looking for the cars. But the mob had surrounded the bus station so there was no way cars could get in and we realized at that moment that we were going to get it.
There was a fellow, a reporter, with an old boom mike and he was panning the crowd. And that's when this heavy-set fellow in a white T-shirt... he had a cigar as I remember... came out and grabbed the mike and jumped on it... just smashed it... basically telling the press, "Back off! You are not going to take any pictures of this. You better stay out or you're going to get it next." You could hear crowd yelling and of course a lot of them were, "Get the ******-lover!" I was the only white guy there.
I bowed my head and asked God to give me the strength and love that I would need, that I put my life in his hands, and to forgive them. And I had the most wonderful religious experience. I felt a presence as close to me as breath itself, if you will, that gave me peace knowing that whatever came, it was okay. Before I opened my eyes, I was grabbed. I was pulled over a railing and thrown to the ground. I remember trying to get up on all fours because you try to get back to your group.
One of the things that I alluded to earlier was the strength we got from one another. To this day I'm sure I'm not the most nonviolent person in the world, but the strength of those people with me gave me strength beyond my own capabilities. Just as when we would see someone else being beaten, our hearts went to them and our strength went to them.
Q: Were you hurt?
Zwerg: Traditionally a white man got picked out for the violence first. That gave the rest of the folks a chance to get away. I was told that several tried to get into the bus terminal. I was knocked to the ground. I remember being kicked in the spine and hearing my back crack, and the pain. I fell on my back and a foot came down on my face. The next thing I remember is waking up in the back of a vehicle and John Lewis handing me a rag to wipe my face. I passed out again and when I woke up I was in another moving vehicle with some very southern-sounding whites. I figured I'm off to get lynched. I had no idea who they were. Again, I went unconscious and I woke up in the hospital. I was informed that I had been unconscious for a day and a half. One of the nurses told me that another little crowd were going to try and lynch me. They had come within a half block of the hospital. She said that she knocked me out in case they did make it, so that I would not be aware of what was happening. I mean, those pictures that appeared in the magazines, the interview... I don't remember them at all. I do remember a class of students -- I think they were high school age, coming to visit me one time.
Q: What was your family's reaction to all this?
Zwerg: 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.
Others have encountered some medical problems, things like that. 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.
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.