Freedom Rider

[Reposted from the ACU Freedom Ride blog:]

One of the reasons I’m attracted to the Civil Rights movement is the heroism. The heroism of the Freedom Summer volunteer, walking the dusty roads of Mississippi. The heroism of Rosa Parks, refusing to move from her seat. The heroism of Martin Luther King Jr., finding God at midnight in his kitchen after receiving a bomb threat. The heroism of the children of Birmingham, marching downtown to face fire hoses and police dogs. And the heroism of the Freedom Riders, who signed their last will and testaments before getting on the bus.

I know these stories. I’ve read the books, watched the documentaries, and gone to the museums. But rarely do you get a chance to meet the heroes.

Today we did.

Today was a day I’ll never forget. One of the great days of my teaching career (and I’m sure David and Jennifer would agree).

Today the ACU Freedom Riders got to meet James Zwerg.

In the summer of 1961 the first Freedom Riders started off in Washington, DC planning to drive through the South to New Orleans. Along the way they planned to test the recently passed legislation desegregating interstate transportation, both on the buses and in the bus stations.

Things went smoothly until they met a mob in Anniston, Alabama. At the Greyhound station a mob attacked the bus and slashed its tires. The bus raced out of town west on Highway 78 toward Birmingham. The mob followed in cars and trucks. A few miles outside of town the bus broke down and the driver ran off in panic. The bus was firebombed and the passengers badly beaten. The riders faced even more violence when they arrived in Birmingham. Feeling they had brought enough attention to the cause, the shaken riders stopped the ride, finishing the journey by taking a plane from Birmingham to New Orleans.

This outcome didn’t sit well with many of the college students in Nashville who were veterans of the Nashville sit-in movement. So a group of these students vowed to finish the Freedom Ride, to get all the way to New Orleans on a bus. Schooled and trained in the methods of nonviolence, their reasoning was simple: Violence cannot have the last word. We have to ride. Even if we die. We have to ride.

So they signed their last wills and testaments and got on the bus. They saw the pictures of the Anniston attack. They knew what lay ahead.

One of those riders was a white college student named James Zwerg.

Driving toward Montgomery the Nashville Freedom Riders were protected, at the request of the Kennedy administration, by Alabama state troopers. The plan was for the state troopers to escort the Freedom Riders to the city limits of Montgomery. There the troopers were to hand off the protection to the Montgomery city police.

But no police appeared. And none waited for the riders at the bus station. The bus pulled into an ominously deserted station. The riders instinctively knew something was wrong. Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, CNN published this week a profile of James Zwerg. The article tells what happened next:

The mob was already waiting for James Zwerg by the time the Greyhound bus eased into the station in Montgomery, Alabama. Looking out the window, Zwerg could see men gripping baseball bats, chains and clubs. They had sealed off the streets leading to the bus station and chased away news photographers. They didn't want anyone to witness what they were about to do.

Zwerg accepted his worst fear: He was going to die today.

Only the night before, Zwerg had prayed for the strength to not strike back in anger. He was among the 18 white and black college students from Nashville who had decided to take the bus trip through the segregated South in 1961. They called themselves Freedom Riders. Their goal was to desegregate public transportation.

Zwerg had not planned to go, but the night before, some students had asked him to join them. To summon his courage, Zwerg stayed up late, reading Psalm 27, the scripture that the students had picked to read during a group prayer before their trip.

"The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I fear?"the Psalm began.
God seemed to answer James' prayer. From later in the article:
After he stepped off the bus, Zwerg says, the crowd grabbed him.

In "Parting the Waters," Taylor Branch wrote that the mob had swelled to 3,000 people and described what happened to Zwerg: "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 that the others could take turns hitting him."

Yet in the midst of that savagery, Zwerg says he had the most beautiful experience in his life. "I bowed my head," he says. "I asked God to give me the strength to remain nonviolent and to forgive the people for what they might do. It was very brief, but in that instant, I felt an overwhelming presence. I don't know how else to describe it. A peace came over me. I knew that no matter what happened to me, it was going to be OK. Whether I lived or whether I died, I felt this incredible calm."
James, along with many many of the Freedom Riders on the bus, including John Lewis, was brutally beaten by the mob. James, being white, as a particular focus of the mob's anger and violence. The pictures of James' bloody face became iconic images of the Civil Rights movement:

Today, our students got to spend an hour with James Zwerg. James shared the story of how he got involved in the Civil Rights movement and about how he felt the gospel was calling him to a life on nonviolence.
"Nonviolence has to be a way of life. It can't be an on-or-off switch. You have to commit your life to nonviolence."
--James Zwerg, May 18, 2011, to ACU Students
James also told us the story of the 1961 Freedom Ride. About the trip, the attack, and his hospital bed interview:

You rarely get to meet your heroes. Today we did. It was a profoundly moving experience to see James talk, laugh, and share with our ACU students. Challenging them to live a life shaped by the gospel. Some pictures of James visiting with our students:

After most of the students had had their moment with James I introduced myself, thanked him, and asked if he would autograph a book. He signed it simply:
James Zwerg--Freedom Rider

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8 thoughts on “Freedom Rider”

  1.  Wonderful Richard.  I share your joy.  May the rest of the trip be life-giving and life-changing to everyone involved.  

  2.  I wish I could have been there with you. I watched the PBS documentary Monday night. I watched it again with my two teenage children when it was rebroadcast Tuesday night. I got choked up both times. Glad that the students have this special opportunity. Thanks for sharing these reports.

  3. Wow. I wish I could have been there. What an honor. The story of Zwerg reminds me of Stephen. It's hard to believe all this happened only 50 years ago.

  4. This is an incredible experience for all of you. Many folks in the small Texas communities I grew up in thought students like James were agitators and troublemakers. They were...for all the right reasons. Their actions and nonviolent response to the brutal reception they received inspired and energized millions whose consciences could not withstand the power of their living Christian witness.

  5. Has anything changed really? A friend came back from Texas where he witnessed two blacks duck and hide as soon as a patrol car came in sight, and then I read this article linked to Faith & Theology  democracy is a sham to make the victim of its power responsible for his condition, is there hope of a truly collective action like the Freedom Rides occurring again, now we've amused our conscience to death?

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