“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.”
These words escaped from the battered lips of James Zwerg as he lay in a hospital bed in Montgomery. He, along with the other Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement, had been subjected to the most gruesome of violence. One of their buses had been fire-bombed, while the mob attempted to keep the door shut so the activists would burn to death inside. White supremacists with bricks, clubs and fists surrounded the Freedom Riders at each stop, howling with hatred and burning with violence.
They hated James Zwerg most of all. James Zwerg was white.
Zwerg first decided to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement when his friend Robert Carter gave him a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stride to Freedom. He began to notice that his friend Carter, an African American, was not accorded the same rights as he was. He was denied membership in some organizations. And he couldn’t eat at the same restaurants.
So in 1960, Zwerg joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a Civil Rights group that organized sit-ins at lunch counters and was determined to desegregate the South. This group was formed by the famous John Lewis, a Civil Rights hero and later a Congressman from Georgia. His very first action with the SNCC ended violently: Zwerg bought two movie tickets to an all-white theatre, handed one to his black comrade, and attempted to walk through the door. Instead, he was knocked unconscious with a monkey wrench and dumped on the sidewalk.
Zwerg, however, was ready to live the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.” In 1961, he joined the Freedom Rides as they left Washington on May 4th for Alabama and Mississippi, the dark heart of American racism.
One bus was firebombed in Aniston. The Freedom Riders continued in the surviving bus. When they arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, the mob was waiting. Famous historian Tayor Branch described the carnage: “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 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 was taken to the hospital, where the photo of his battered face was beamed around the country. He refused to accept praise for his actions, stating later that, “There was nothing 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 work, happened to walk by as my beating was going 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.”
James Zwerg was presented with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Freedom Award by Martin Luther King Jr. later in 1961, but he never felt like a hero. He entered the seminary after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and became a pastor in the United Church of Christ.
James Zwerg is the embodiment of the dedication needed to effect real change in a world where justice is not passively received, but must be actively fought for. The history of social reform tells us that three things are needed to achieve social change and end great injustice: To confront the culture, to expose the injustice, and to accept the resulting persecution. James Zwerg was willing to do all three, accepting more persecution than most ever will.
James Zwerg was an inspiring hero, and for a very simple reason: He was willing to stand up for his persecuted neighbours, and he was willing to accept whatever consequences accompanied his actions. James Zwerg’s legacy is incontrovertible.
What will our legacy look like?