November 28, 1939 |
|Occupation||Former minister, retired|
|Known for||Civil rights activist, Freedom Rider|
James Zwerg (born November 28, 1939) is an American former minister who was involved with the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s.
Zwerg was born in Appleton, Wisconsin where he lived with his parents and older brother, Charles. His father was a dentist who provided free dental care to the poor on one day per month. Zwerg was very involved in school and took part in the student post[clarification needed] in high school.
Zwerg was also very active in the Christian church, where he attended services regularly. Through the church, he became exposed to the belief in civil equality. He was taught that all men are created equal, no matter what color they are.
College and SNCC
Zwerg attended Beloit College, where he studied sociology. He developed an interest in civil rights from his interactions with his roommate, Robert Carter, an African-American from Alabama. Zwerg recalls: “ I witnessed prejudice against him… we would 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.”  He participated in a one-semester student exchange program in January 1961 at Nashville’s Fisk University, a predominantly black school. At Fisk, Zwerg met John Lewis, who was active in the Civil Rights movement, and was immediately impressed with the way Lewis handled himself and his commitment to the movement. Lewis was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student organized Civil Rights activist group focused on nonviolent direct action. Zwerg joined SNCC and suggested that the group attend a movie. SNCC members explained to Zwerg that Nashville theaters were segregated. Zwerg began attending SNCC nonviolence workshops, often playing the angry bigot in role-play. His first test was to buy two movie tickets and try to walk in with a black man. When trying to enter the theater on February 21, 1961, Zwerg was hit with a monkey wrench and knocked unconscious.
In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. The first departed from Washington, D.C. and involved 13 black and white riders who rode into the South challenging white only lunch counters and restaurants. When they reached Anniston, Alabama one of the busses was ambushed and attacked. Meanwhile, at a SNCC meeting in Tennessee, Lewis, Zwerg and 11 other volunteers decided to be reinforcements. Zwerg was the only white male in the group. Although scared for his life, Zwerg never had second thoughts. He recalled, "My faith was never so strong as during that time. I knew I was doing what I should be doing."
The group traveled by bus to Birmingham, where Zwerg was first arrested for not moving to the back of the bus with his black seating companion, Paul Brooks. Three days later, the riders regrouped and headed to Montgomery. At first the terminal there was quiet and eerie, but the scene turned into an ambush, with the riders attacked from all directions. Zwerg’s suitcase was grabbed and smashed into his face until he hit the ground, and others beat him repeatedly. One man stopped and clamped Zwerg’s head between his knees so others could beat him. The attackers knocked his teeth out and showed no signs of stopping, until a black man stepped in and ultimately saved his life. Zwerg recalls, "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 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."
Zwerg was denied prompt medical attention because there were no white ambulances available. He remained unconscious for two days and stayed in the hospital for five days. His post-riot photos were published in many newspapers and magazines across the country. After his beating, Zwerg claimed he had had an incredible religious experience and God helped him to not fight back. In a 2013 interview recalling the incident, he said, "In that instant, I had the most incredible religious experience of my life. I felt a presence with me. A peace. Calmness. It was just like I was surrounded by kindness, love. I knew in that instance that whether I lived or died, I would be OK." In a famous moving speech from his hospital room, Zwerg stated, "Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. Those of us on the Freedom Ride will continue.... We're dedicated to this, we'll take hitting, we'll take beating. We're willing to accept death. But we're going to keep coming until we can ride from anywhere in the South to any place else in the South without anybody making any comments, just as American citizens."
Later in 1961, Martin Luther King presented Zwerg with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Freedom Award. After a conversation with King, Zwerg decided to enroll at Garrett Theological Seminary. He met his future wife Carrie. Zwerg was ordained a minister, serving for five years in three rural Wisconsin communities. The Zwergs settled in Tucson, Arizona in 1970 and had three children. He changed his career several times, including charity organization work and a stint in community relations at IBM. Zwerg retired in 1993 after which the couple built a cabin in rural New Mexico about 50 miles (80 km) from the nearest grocery store. He has commented that his work in the ministry will always be with him.
- Gonzalez, Tony (May 31, 2013). "Accidental Advocate Looks Back". Appleton Post Crescent. pp. A1,A4.
- "Zwerg, Jim, 1939-". Civil Rights Digital Library. Digital Library of Georgia. 2011. Retrieved 2011-05-16.
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- Blake, John (16 May 2011). "Shocking photo created a hero, but not to his family". CNN. Retrieved 16 May 2011.