On a sunny autumn morning in 2011, I found myself facing a room full of African-American literature students at the University of Alabama. I’d recently completed my graduate work there, and had stayed on as an instructor in the English Department to teach composition, creative writing, and the occasional course on American literature. If you had asked me at the time why I signed up to teach this class, I couldn’t have told you. Today, that is a different story.
Though the class catalog read, Instructor: Hollars, I knew better than to situate myself as the learned, august professor dispensing wisdom from above. The problem wasn’t that I was a white person teaching African-American literature. Rather, the problem was that I was a young, creative writer who had never even taken the class I’d signed up to teach. Acutely aware of my limitations, I made it clear to my students on the very first day that I was hardly the perfect person to teach the course. By the perplexed looks I received from my majority black class, they seemed to be aware of my limitations as well.
While my lack of experience with African-American literature was certainly a concern, every day when I walked into the classroom I was confronted with another: What could a 26-year-old white guy from Indiana possibly know about the black experience in America, past or present?
That fall semester I listened more than I talked, pondered more than I pontificated, and, by term’s end, began to understand what it meant to be a student of color at a major university in the American South. I began to learn, too, just how much I didn’t know. Indeed, we hurtled through the canon, marveling at the endurance of Elizabeth Keckley, the fire of Frederick Douglass, the subtlety of Nella Larsen, and the profound power of Langston Hughes. With each text, the students and I grappled with our past and present, engaging in several meandering digressions centered on what these works might teach 21st century citizens such as ourselves.
As students began sharing their personal experiences, I felt their palpable pride at being part of a culture that had contributed so much to the American experience—even though it may have seemed that America at times has not reciprocated that pride.
I also became aware of an underlying fear that resided deep within many of these college students, a fear of racial slurs hurled their way from a dorm room window, or chalked on the sidewalks beneath their feet.
“There’s no avoiding it,” one student shrugged. “We live our lives wondering when we’ll get it next.”
Five years after my teaching stint at University of Alabama, the words of that student were on my mind as I sat at a table full of strangers during a book festival in Eau Claire. Over dinner we became engaged in a conversation about race and America. A man named Charlie Bauer, who was seated next to me, turned and asked, “You ever heard of a guy named Jim Zwerg?”
“Is he local?” I replied.
“Used to be,” said Bauer. “He was the associate pastor of our church here in town. Just a few years after his time as a Freedom Rider.”
While I didn’t recognize Zwerg’s name, I knew about a few of the over four hundred riders who boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses in the summer of 1961 to protest rampant, institutionalized racism in the segregated South. Two Supreme Court decisions—1946’s Morgan vs. Virginia and 1960’s Boynton vs. Virginia—had ruled in favor of integrated, interstate bus travel. Yet, despite these rulings, in many southern cities social custom trumped legislation. Freedom Riders sought to test the enforcement of these rulings, often risking their lives in the process.
“You should give Jim a call,” Bauer suggested, “I bet he’d have a few things to tell you about civil rights.”
These days, Jim Zwerg is a hard man to find. After leaving Eau Claire for Arizona in 1971, he spent the remainder of his professional life working for the Congregational church, charities, and in corporate community relations. After retiring in 1993, Zwerg and his wife retreated to a cabin in rural New Mexico, where they still live today.
Before I had even met Jim Zwerg, I came to know his face very well. So have many others who have come to know the story of the Freedom Riders. That’s because of a rather famous photo of Zwerg when he was a young man. In it, the Appleton native leans against the edge of a building, his striped tie slightly askew, blood splattered across his suit coat. Eyes down, Zwerg studies the blood on his sleeve as if questioning how it got there. Certainly a person or group of people is to blame, though there’s no hint of their presence in the photo. All it shows is the aftermath of their presence: a man, beaten and bloodied.
If we were somehow to remove the blood—to expunge it from the frame—the photo might be mistaken for a print ad for a high-end watch company. But there is no erasing a story written in blood, whether Zwerg’s story or the thousands of others that make up the struggle for civil rights.
Zwerg’s civil rights story began in the fall of 1958, when the eighteen-year-old from Appleton first stepped foot onto the Beloit College campus. Bags in tow, Zwerg entered his dorm room to find one of his two roommates already there, a black student named Bob Carter. The two became fast friends.
Zwerg recalls how quickly he became aware of instances of racial prejudice directed at Carter. “We’d go to the commons to have a meal and people would get up from the table to leave, and there were these excessive tiffs during basketball or football intramural games. People made comments just loud enough for him to hear.”
Throughout the fall and spring of his freshman year, Zwerg observed instances of discrimination spilling into the city as well, including one situation in which a barber refused Carter service—he didn’t cut “Negro” hair. Zwerg was puzzled by such explicit instances of racism, though even more puzzled by Carter’s muted response.
“How do you take it?” Zwerg asked one day while the pair lounged in their dorm room. “Why don’t you do something?”
Carter’s eyes flicked toward Zwerg, and, after a moment of contemplation, he marched toward his dresser. Removing a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Stride Toward Freedom, he encouraged his roommate to give it a read.
Zwerg did, and what he found inside proved life-changing: Dr. King’s blueprint for the strategy employed throughout the 1955–56 Montgomery Bus Boycott—the thirteen-month demonstration that led to a federal ruling, and later, a Supreme Court decision, both of which confirmed the unconstitutionality of segregated buses. For Zwerg, Dr. King’s book was more than a history lesson; it was a plan for the future. A plan that now included him.
Throughout his time at Beloit, Zwerg’s interest in civil rights continued to grow, ultimately spurring him to apply—and be admitted to—a one-semester exchange program Beloit College shared with Fisk University in Nashville.
It was January of 1961, and evidence of segregation was everywhere, from “colored only” bathrooms and drinking fountains to “whites only” signs hung above restaurants and movie theaters.
But signs of resistance were also everywhere. Zwerg noticed a dozen or so well-dressed demonstrators standing quietly outside the theater. They wore no placards, sang no Freedom songs, and instead, simply stood where they weren’t welcome.
Baffled by their reserved demeanor, Zwerg crossed the street and asked their spokesman how such a seemingly understated display could ever prove effective.
Twenty-year-old John Lewis—the future congressman and civil rights icon—eyed the white student and deemed his question sincere.
“If you want to follow us back to the church,” Lewis said, “I’d be happy to talk to you.”
In the weeks that followed, Zwerg took part in lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater demonstrations, and also found himself on the receiving end of a well-placed punch as a result of his activism.
“When violence occurred, it followed a format.” Zwerg says. “And I was usually the first focus. They wanted the white male. I was the traitor of the white race.”
Zwerg’s willingness to endure physical violence for the cause didn’t go unnoticed. Diane Nash, John Lewis, and other Nashville Student Movement leaders took careful note of Brother Jim—the rare white man who used his privilege as a target rather than a shield.
As Zwerg continued demonstrating in Nashville, nine-hundred miles away in New York, James Farmer, the newly installed executive director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was busily making the final preparations for the first Freedom Ride. An interstate bus journey from Washington DC to New Orleans with stops along the way, the Freedom Ride was designed to bring public attention to unconstitutionally segregated bus and rail stations in some southern states. On the morning of May 4, 1961, thirteen Riders (seven black and six white) boarded a pair of buses, well aware of the dangers they might encounter by testing the enforcement—or lack thereof—of the law. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedom-rides.
Ten days into their journey, they were rocked by violence. One bus was set aflame outside of Anniston, Alabama, followed hours later by an attack on the riders of the second bus when it stopped at a Birmingham bus terminal.
Upon learning of the violence, Jim Zwerg and several other Nashville Student Movement members committed themselves to continuing the journey. To halt the rides, they feared, would serve only to embolden their perpetrators and confirm that violence was indeed the surest way to prevent future civil rights demonstrations.
On the evening of May 16—the night before boarding the buses—Zwerg placed a call to his parents in Appleton. Previously, he’d been discrete about his civil rights work, but he knew he could hardly join the Freedom Rides without informing his parents.
“I wanted to tell them how much I loved them,” Zwerg explains. “And to thank them for bringing me up the way they did. I guess I was naively hoping that I would get the kind of sendoff that the young soldier gets—‘We’re proud of you son, God bless you, keep safe.’ And … I didn’t get that.”
Zwerg had hardly finished announcing his impending travels when Mary Zwerg interrupted her son.
“You can’t do that,” she told him. “You’re throwing away your education. … And do you know what you’ll do to your father?”
They’d raised him to be an honest person, to stand up to injustice. How could he turn away from that now?
“Mom,” Zwerg said, “I’ve never been so sure. This is what God wants me to do.”
“You’ll kill your father,” she said, slamming the phone into its cradle.
The following morning, Zwerg got on the bus.
By the time Zwerg and the other Nashville-based Freedom Riders boarded the buses, they had all seen pictures of the smoke billowing from the Greyhound just off the Anniston highway, pictures of the angry faces of the white men as they pummeled a toppled Rider in the Birmingham bus terminal.
In an effort to avoid more violence, President Kennedy and his administration struck a deal with Alabama Governor John Patterson, who agreed to protect the Riders during their brief stint in the state. As such, on the morning of May 20, the Freedom Riders received an unprecedented law enforcement escort as they cut deeper into the Heart of Dixie.
“We had a plane going overhead,” Zwerg recalls, “we had squad cars, we had motorcycles.”
That is, until the bus reached the outskirts of Montgomery. As their escorts peeled away one by one, the Freedom Riders began to realize that they were exposed.
Zwerg turned to his seatmate, John Lewis, to find him just waking from his nap. Lewis watched as the last patrol car pulled out of sight, then said, “That’s not good.”
The bus eased into Montgomery’s Greyhound Station on South Court Street at around 10:20 am, and, though they feared for their lives, the Freedom Riders had no choice but to disembark. Uncertain of what was to come, Zwerg followed the others who were huddled around a group of reporters.
“John was just stepping forward to address the press,” Zwerg says, “and this fella—I think he was a used car salesman as I recall, and a Klansmen—went at one of the fellas [who was holding] a parabolic mic, grabbed it, and threw it to the ground.”
Zwerg watched in horror as others came bearing bricks and pipes and chains—all of which were used indiscriminately. The women attacked female Riders with their purses, the men attacked the male Riders who tried to intervene. The following day’s edition of the Anniston Star described the “howling mobs of white people,” some two hundred strong, that raged for two hours.
Eyes closed, Zwerg prayed to God for the strength to remain nonviolent in the midst of mortal danger. But he prayed, too, for the attackers, pleading with God to forgive them.
“And that’s when I had this incredible religious experience of feeling surrounded by love and peace,” Zwerg says, his voice wavering. “I just had this assurance that no matter what happened I was going to be okay.”
Zwerg was okay, eventually. Though, the now-famous image that ran on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser only manages to capture a fraction of his injuries: cracked vertebrae, fractured teeth, blunt force trauma to his head.
Zwerg spent several days in a Montgomery hospital, and, in the midst of his delirium, agreed to a hospital bed interview. In the grainy footage, a black-eyed Zwerg can be heard saying, “We’re dedicated to this. We’ll take hitting, we’ll take beating.” And then, as his half-closed eyes flutter toward the camera, he delivers his most powerful line: “We’re willing to accept death.”
In that moment, his words undoubtedly held great weight—a signal to his fellow Freedom Riders, as well as the nation, that violence would never deter them. Years later, Zwerg admits that because of the trauma to his head he hardly remembers any of that interview. Yet when prompted to speak to the camera, he relied upon the words he’d so often heard before, words that had become the mantra of the movement: that there was no turning back, not ever. They would continue forward, no matter the price.
Due to his serious injuries, Zwerg never completed his Freedom Ride—a regret that has stayed with him to this day. Yet as a result of the unwavering commitment demonstrated by Zwerg and many others, in the fall of 1961 “white” and “colored” signs were removed from bus terminals throughout the South. Time and again, the Supreme Court had ruled that separate was not equal, and, finally, the last public vestiges of a flawed doctrine were coming down.
Fifty-five years later, in the spring of 2016, I take my seat alongside a hundred or so University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire students and colleagues for our nine-day Civil Rights Pilgrimage. http://www.uwec.edu/Blugoldbeginnings/newsandevents/crm.htm. Founded in 2008 and organized by Associate Dean of Students Jodi-Thesing Ritter, this annual 3,000-mile bus trip through the southern states provides students and faculty with an opportunity to see the American civil rights movement through the eyes of a Freedom Rider.
The pilgrimage is a great way to see history come alive, and our eyes and minds are widened in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, New Orleans, and Little Rock. Though, I’m most moved by our time in Atlanta. It’s there, in the basement of the Georgia Tech student center, where we meet seventy-five-year-old Freedom Rider Charles Person. Person was just eighteen on May 14, 1961, when he and others were brutally beaten in the Birmingham bus terminal.
At the time, Person was a freshman at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Even though he was a gifted math and physics student who dreamed of a career as a scientist, Person was refused admission to the all-white Georgia Institute of Technology. Born and raised in Atlanta, Person had felt his entire life the degrading effects of segregation. While at Morehouse, he became active in the Atlanta sit-in movement to integrate segregated lunch counters in early 1961 and was sentenced to sixteen days in jail as a result. After the Freedom Rides, Person joined the US Marines in late 1961, retiring after two decades of active service to his country. Since returning to Georgia, Person has worked as a technology supervisor for Atlanta’s public schools.
On the morning we meet, Person is decked out in a tuxedo adorned with military medals, fitting attire for a decorated Marine and lifelong fighter for freedom and social justice.
“My real wish in life,” Charles tells our assembled group, “is that at some point we could have a sit down—a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza—with the people who beat us. I was five-foot-six-inches and 126 pounds,” he says, shaking his head. “For them to have that much venom toward people they have never met before, … I’d like to have a sit down and ask, Why?”
The students and I sit spellbound as Person shares his story: what it was like growing up black in a segregated community, the bus ride and beating in the Birmingham terminal, how these and other events firmed his resolve to seek racial equity. And how despite it all, he—much like Jim Zwerg—never gave up, never turned back, and never doubted that people can change the world for the better if they just try hard enough.
“It was easy for us to get on the bus, but now it’s up to you,” he tells us, as if to say there is still a long road ahead that will require perhaps a different kind of Freedom Rider.
Person sweeps the room with his eyes. He seems to be addressing our little group from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but he is looking directly at me when he asks, “What would you get on the bus for?”