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.
John Lewis and Diane Nash, two of the leaders of the student movement in Nashville, knew that if the Freedom Rides died, the Klan would win. Jim Crow would grow stronger. They picked ten of their own to continue the rides. Jim Zwerg was one of them.
Zwerg was an exchange student at Fisk, a black university in Nashville. He met John Lewis a few days after he arrived. Both were studying to become Christian ministers.
On Saturday, May 20th the new Freedom Riders took the bus from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama. A thousand whites came out to greet the bus at Montgomery. Zwerg:
You could see baseball bats; you could see ropes; you could see pieces of chain. You knew why they were there… And you knew it was very soon going to happen. At that moment… I bowed my head, and I prayed. And I asked God to give me the strength to be nonviolent. I asked God to forgive them for whatever they might do. And I asked him to be with me.
Never in his life had he felt such peace. Then he walked off the bus, the first one.
People cried “Get the nigger lover”. They knocked him down, kicked him in the back, stepped on his face. He blacked out. They continued hitting him in the face and kicking his body on the ground. Women hit him with their handbags. The whites hated him more than they did the blacks, giving many of the black Freedom Riders a chance to escape.
As it turns out most of the whites were Klan. The police had made a deal with them to wait ten minutes before stepping in. As it was it took tear gas to stop the violence.
Zwerg lay knocked out and wounded at the bus station. For two hours. No white ambulance would take him. At last the police drove him to the hospital and got him help.
Half his teeth were broken. So was his thumb and his nose. Worst of all, three bones in his back were cracked. He would have back pain for the rest of his life.
He made the news. On television from coast to coast he told the country from his hospital bed:
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.
After that people from all walks of life, young and old, north and south, joined the Freedom Rides. Now they became unstoppable.