James Zwerg was born on November 28, 1939, in Appleton, Wisconsin. He was member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (also known as SNCC) and the Freedom Riders movement to desegregate interstate travel. Being white, he’s a perfect illustration of how the civil rights cause touched the hearts and souls of so many Americans.
Zwerg developed an interest in civil rights from his friendship with college roommate Robert Carter, who was an African-American from Alabama. Here is how he recalls it:
“ 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 de-pledged.”
In 1961, Zwerg was a member of the first group of Freedom Riders to departed from Washington, D.C. and traveled throughout the Heart of South. Made up of thirteen black and white riders, their goal was to challenge the practice of white only lunch counters and restaurants. They were physically attacked in Montgomery, Alabama. One man 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 an African-American man stepped in and ultimately saved his life. In Zwerg’s own words:
“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.”
In a famous interview from his hospital bed, Zwerg said:
“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.”
Here is a video segment about James Zwerg from the PBS’ American Experience:
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