In this video segment from the American Experience: "Freedom Riders" Web site, watch newsreel footage and interviews and see archival photos to gain insight into the white college students who became active in the struggle for African Americans' civil rights. Jim Zwerg tells how he became one of the Freedom Riders, a decision that led to his estrangement from his parents and a beating at the hands of an Alabama mob.
This video includes language that is considered offensive. However, it provides authentic documentation of the bigotry of the era.
Democracy in Action Study Guide (Document)
Jim Zwerg was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1939 and, like many of his friends and neighbors, had little sense of the conditions that African Americans were facing in the segregated Southern states. As a white student at Wisconsin's Beloit College in 1959, Zwerg witnessed discrimination in the North firsthand when Robert Carter, his African American roommate, was denied membership in a school fraternity. The incident inspired Zwerg to participate in a student exchange program in the South to investigate the more pervasive and often violent racism there.
The school that Zwerg attended, Fisk University, is among the oldest and most prestigious of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that were founded in former slave states after the American Civil War. Fisk was founded in 1866 and soon earned an international reputation through the tours of its Jubilee Singers; however, by 1960, the school was also recognized as a center for the growing number of students who were taking part in the Civil Rights Movement. At Fisk, Zwerg met John Lewis, an organizer of the Freedom Rides, and participated as an "antagonist" in weekly training sessions in nonviolent direct action. Zwerg's job was to simulate the response of white racists to civil rights protestors.
Zwerg was an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk when the first Freedom Ride took place. After several of the first Freedom Riders were beaten in Birmingham, Alabama, Zwerg was among the black and white students who volunteered to replace them so that the Freedom Ride could continue. This decision shocked Zwerg's parents and led to an estrangement that took several years to heal. Zwerg joined the Freedom Ride in Birmingham. Targeted by a white mob, which often directed even greater violence to those they considered traitors to the ideal of white supremacy, Zwerg himself was repeatedly beaten in Montgomery. He recalls being saved from death when an African American resident of Montgomery intervened.
Claiming that all the ambulances authorized to carry white people were otherwise in use, local officials initially denied Zwerg medical care for his multiple injuries, including a broken back. Zwerg was finally hospitalized, but remained in a coma for nearly three days. He had regained consciousness by the time journalists sought him out for interviews and photographs. National magazines and wire services circulated his photo and comments, and Zwerg became a national symbol of the white students who banded together with their African American counterparts to fight illegal discrimination. Zwerg was given the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Freedom Award later that year, and his meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. at the presentation ceremony led Zwerg to enter the ministry.
White Freedom Riders such as Jim Zwerg, some from as far west as California, provided critical evidence that the struggle for African American civil rights united people across many demographic categories. An analysis of the 328 Freedom Riders who were arrested in Mississippi in 1961 revealed that 50 percent were white, 25 percent were female, and 39 states as well as 10 foreign countries were represented. And while Freedom Riders ranged in age from 13 to 65, 40 percent were of college age, illustrating the importance of students such as Zwerg.
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