James Zwerg in 1961 after being beaten by a mob in Montgomery, Alabama during the Freedom Ride
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 became famous for his involvement with the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s.
James Zwerg was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. He lived in an all-white community with his mother, father, and older brother Charles. He was very involved in school and took part in the student post in high school.
Zwerg was also very active in the Christian church, in which he attended services regularly. Through the church, his parents taught him many morals and beliefs, one of which regarded civil equality. He was taught that all men are created equal, no matter what color they are.
College and SNCC
Jim Zwerg attended Beloit College, where he studied sociology. He developed an interest in civil rights from his interactions with his roommate Robert Carter, who was 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.”  Interactions provoked him to participate in an exchange program where he would go to Nashville’s Fisk University, a predominantly black school in Tennessee where he would be in the minority. 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. In 1960, Zwerg joined the SNCC. Zwerg’s first test was to buy two movie tickets and to try to walk in with a black man. When trying to enter the theatre, Zwerg was hit with a monkey wrench and knocked out cold.
The Freedom Rides
As segregation in the South continued in 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began to organize Freedom Rides. The first Freedom Ride departed from Washington, D.C. and involved thirteen black and white riders who rode into the South challenging white only lunch counters and restaurants. When they reached Anniston one of the busses was ambushed and attacked. Meanwhile, at a SNCC meeting in Tennessee, Lewis, Zwerg and eleven other volunteers decided they would be the reinforcements. Zwerg was the only white male in the group. Zwerg was scared for his life, but he 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. Three days later, the riders regrouped and headed to Montgomery. At first the terminal was quiet and eerie, but it turned into an ambush. The riders were attacked from all directions. Zwerg’s suitcase was grabbed and smashed into his face until he hit the ground, where 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 2 days and stayed in the hospital for 5 days. Jim Zwerg’s post-riot photos were published in many newspapers and magazines across the country and showed America his suffering. After his beating, Zwerg claimed he had had an incredible religious experience and God helped him not fight back.
Zwerg claimed he was at peace, a peace he never again felt in his life. In a famous moving speech from in his hospital bedroom, 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."
Post Freedom Rides
Later in 1961, Martin Luther King presented Zwerg with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Freedom Award. After a conversation with King, Zwerg decided to join Garrett Theological Seminary. Zwerg later changed his career several times (ultimately retiring in 1999), but has commented that his work in the ministry will always be with him. Zwerg has a lifetime commitment to nonviolence. Zwerg currently lives in Arizona, where he has three children.
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- Blake, John (16 May 2011). "Shocking photo created a hero, but not to his family". CNN. Retrieved 16 May 2011.