Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg waits for transportation to a hospital. Segregation laws prohibited Black taxi drivers from giving rides to whites, and white cabbies refused to transport Freedom Riders of any race. May 14, 1961
When the buses arrived in Montgomery the riders were viciously attacked by waiting mobs. Reporters and photographers are also brutally assaulted and their cameras smashed to prevent the rest of America from seeing pictures of the Klan assault on nonviolent young men and women. After the attack, Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg waits for transportation to a hospital (segregation laws prohibit Black taxi drivers from giving rides to whites, and white cabbies refuse to transport Freedom Riders of any race).
Jim Zwerg was a white American civil rights activist who in 1961 took part in the protests in Nashville and the Freedom Rides.
The Freedom Riders rode buses in the South to test the new civil rights laws. The first two buses left Washington, DC on May 4th 1961. Ten days later both ended in Klan violence in Alabama, one at Anniston, the other at Birmingham.
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.
Half his teeth were broken as were his thumb and his nose. Three bones in his back were cracked resulting in back pain for the rest of his life.
Zwerg claimed he had had an incredible religious experience and God helped him not fight back, he was at peace, a peace he never again felt in his life.
“Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. We’re going on to New Orleans no matter what. We’re dedicated to this. We’ll take hitting. We’ll take beating. We’re willing to accept death.” - Jim Zwerg
John Lewis (l) and Jim Zwerg after they were beaten on a Freedom Ride in Alabama in 1964. Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Now he is a long-serving Member of Congress from Georgia.