The Supreme Court declared segregation on interstate trains and buses unconstitutional in the early 1950s. Before this, segregated buses, trains, and streetcars were the norm in the South, and the court's decision really didn't stop states, especially those in the deep South, from segregating passengers on interstate buses and in restaurants, snack shops, and facilities at bus stations. Even the famous were subject to this kind of humiliation. According to Taylor Branch, "Jackie Robinson faced a wartime court-martial for refusing to move to the back of a bus."
In reaction to this situation, a civil rights group, the Congress on Racial Equality, organized Freedom Rides in 1961. After three days of training in non-violent techniques, James Farmer, CORE's national director, and thirteen volunteers, both black and white, boarded two buses inWashington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, and headed for Georgia,Alabama, and Mississippi.
In Anniston, Alabama, one of the buses was pursued by a mob. When it broke down on the highway, the mob set it on fire, and some Freedom Riders were beaten as they escaped the bus. Pictures of the burning bus focused worldwide attention on the riders and their goal of integration. The violence did not deter civil rights workers, and more than one thousand people became Freedom Riders in the next six months.
One of those riders was James Zwerg, a white 21-year-old from Appleton. How did a young Appleton native end up being a Freedom Rider? Zwerg's story began when he went to a predominantly black college in Nashville as an exchange student his junior year. He became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and worked with SNCC members to integrate Nashville movie theaters. After the attack on the CORE bus, Nashville's SNCC leadership decided to continue the Freedom Ride, and Zwerg volunteered to participate. On his historic ride, he was imprisoned in Birmingham and later a mob beat him when he stepped off the bus at the Montgomery bus station.
Frederick Leonard, an African-American Freedom Rider, said Zwerg"had a lot of nerve. I think that is what saved me because Jim Zwerg walked off the bus in front of us. The crowd was possessed. They couldn't believe there was a white man who would help us. They grabbed him and pulled him into the mob.Their attention was on him. It was as if they didn't see us."
According to the Pulitzer-winning book,Parting the Waters,"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 the others could take turns hitting him. As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming with blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage."
Zwerg was left in the road for more than an hour because police insisted he take a white-only ambulance. When the police were asked why the ambulance was delayed, they said all the ambulances were in the repair shop that day. Despite his injuries, a concussion, and a broken back, he was unwilling to give up on his and his colleagues' objectives. "Segregation must be stopped," Zwerg told a reporter."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 going until we can ride anywhere in the South."
Zwerg has been modest about accepting accolades. "There was nothing particularly heroic in what I did," he said. "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 on and he said,'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.'And they did.… Now that was heroic." Instead of telling you all the details of Zwerg's story, we're going to let him tell you in his own words.We are able to do this because Boston's Public Broadcasting StationWGBH has kindly allowed us to reproduce the following transcript of its interview with Zwerg.