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Interview with Jim Zwerg
Civil Rights Activist, United States
Q: How did you first become interested in civil rights?
Zwerg: I had two roommates at Beloit College my freshman year -- the quarterback of the football team, a big quiet guy, good-looking fellow, and a smaller black roommate who was an absolute genius in the classics, in Latin and Greek and all the ancient languages. His name was Bob Carter. Bob had come from the south, Alabama I believe, although I'm not positive about that. He gave me King's book to read -- Stride Towards Freedom.
I witnessed prejudice against him... we'd 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 depledged. I asked Bob one day, "Why don't you lash out at those people when they're saying things to you and your girlfriend? You just kind of walk away. You take it and you don't smart-mouth them. I don't know how you can do that." And that's when he said, "It doesn't prove anything" and he gave me King's book.
It got me thinking. As a sociology major, I wondered if I could be the same way if the tables were reversed. If I was in the minority, would I be willing to take it? Beloit had an exchange program with Fisk University, a predominately black university in Nashville... when that opportunity unveiled itself, I submitted my name to be an exchange student and I was accepted at Fisk.
Q: What was your experience there?
Zwerg: I got to Nashville in 1961 and the first discrimination that I experienced was when I explained to the cabby where I was going. He had already put my suitcase in the back of his cab. As soon as I gave him the destination, he stopped at the entrance to the campus. He did not drive onto the campus, he stopped right at the gates, opened the trunk and made no effort to get my suitcase out. It was very obvious that he was not pleased that I was there.
I was there early, and I had a chance to go over to the Student Union. There was a little rathskeller or whatever downstairs, and music was playing, and there were maybe just a half dozen kids there. They were dancing and having sodas. They were doing a dance... I had never seen anything like it in my life. It's hard to describe, but they were moving back and forth and legs were going up and they were twisting around, and the whole 9 yards. And I went over and said, "What kind of dance is this? What are you guys doing?" And they said, "The twist." Well, the twist was the dance back at Beloit too. So I said, "Well, I know how to twist." But it was very flat-footed -- you had your feet planted and you just kind of moved your body back and forth. I made a complete ass out of myself basically. I did not dance nearly as well as these people did. But they were very kind and showed me some moves, and by the time we were finished I was out there dancing with the rest of them.
Two of them introduced themselves and invited me over to their table. They both happened to be involved in the demonstrations that were just getting underway in Nashville to integrate movie theaters. And they got talking about it. They were going to meet with a professor who had been beaten. And they invited me to go along. So I went over to his home, and there were a few other professors there, along with students who were involved in the movement. That was my first introduction to the non-violent movement.
Q: What made you decide to participate?
Zwerg: I had invited one of my roommates to go to a movie with me, and he said, "Well, you know we can't sit together and, with the demonstrations going on, they probably won't even let me in."
The movie theaters in Nashville were segregated. So it was impossible for me to go to a movie with either my roommate or any of my classmates at Fisk. They ended up sitting in the balconies while I got the first floor rows. I took a bus downtown to see what was going on at the movie theaters. Quite honestly, my first impression was that this wasn't making much of an impression. There were approximately 10 or 12 students -- nicely dressed, suits and ties for the fellows, the girls were dressed like they were going out -- just standing in front of the movie theater. White patrons were still going right by them getting their tickets, going in. I stood across the street for 20 minutes or so and I could see that it wasn't having any effect. There were a few people standing with me, making comments. I didn't see any pushing, shoving, or hitting.
Finally I went across the street to one of the fellows and said, "I've observed you for like 20 minutes. It doesn't appear to me that you're having any effect. What is it you're trying to accomplish?" And he referred me to their spokesman. That surprised me... first of all, that there was a spokesman, if you will. Well, that spokesman was John Lewis, now the Congressman. I went over and asked John these same questions and he said they were about to finish this particular demonstration and that if I wanted to go back to the church with them where they'd be meeting, I was welcome and they'd talk to me.
So I followed them a couple of blocks back to the church. I had a chance to talk at length with John. I was almost in awe of this young man. He was my age -- 21 -- but I had never met another person my age with his commitment. He exuded a quiet strength, almost an absolute certainty that he knew what he was doing -- very open and very honest.
Q: Were you involved in demonstrations right away?
Zwerg: For a long time -- several weeks -- I would attend what they called workshops and mass meetings. Mass meetings were held to inform the community, students and parents and family members, about what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, had planned. Workshops were initially more like role-playing, except there was a religious overtone. Obviously a lot of the songs of the movement were sung.
Q: What was the purpose of a workshop?
Zwerg: The workshops were an opportunity for students who had an interest in demonstrating to see whether or not they would be accepted. It was not a situation where you could say, "I'm ready to go demonstrate, put me in the line." The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's council, if you will, made those kinds of decisions. This was a group of approximately two dozen young people from the various schools in the Nashville area who had been in demonstrations -- Diane Nash, Jim Beville, Bernard Lafayette --- some of the names that you've heard already. Several of them were seminarians who brought to the organization their faith and references to Christ, to Ghandi, to the non-violence that Dr. King was advocating.
My initial interest was really just curiosity. Like I said, I was studying sociology. I was interested in psychology. I was fascinated by people and I was fascinated that somebody could be non-violent. I always had a short fuse when I was a kid and I just couldn't imagine just standing and taking a beating.
I observed some more demonstrations and then I'd go to the workshops. The leaders would coordinate the process. Those interested in demonstrating would stage a mock demonstration. Someone would be the ticket-taker in the movie theater. As things progressed they would work on logistics... they started to rotate the line in front of the movie theater. What they found was that the person at the back of the line was more susceptible to violence, and if you rotated the line, the violence would go down.
Q: What roles did the white students play?
Zwerg: Well, at the time, a female student and myself were the only whites that were attending any of the workshops, and we were just observing. After a while they asked if I wanted to take the role of a heckler -- boy, what a wonderful way to vent all your hostility! The idea was you were to address these young people as they would be in a real demonstration. You'd spit on them, curse them... you'd use every four-letter word you could think of. You could slap them, you could kick them. We did not put cigarettes out on them, but we threatened them with that type of thing because it could happen. The whole idea was that you weren't going to be able to demonstrate unless you'd gone through this to the point that you weren't going to strike back, or you weren't going to sass them. The Coordinating Committee decided if a person would actually go and demonstrate. I role-played for a while, and then they said, "How'd you like to stand on the other side and try and be a demonstrator?"
Q: What sort of comments did you hear as a demonstrator in the workshops?
Zwerg: "You black son-of-a-bitch, what are you doing here? Get the hell out of here! Hey boy, go on back where you belong!" It could be something that simple. Of course, I was "white-trash," a "nigger-lover." That didn't bother me much. But one of the young black women was a classmate of mine and they started making overtures using special vulgarities of her relationship with me. That bugged me. My first reaction was, quite honestly, just grit your teeth, clench your fists... I wanted to pop that guy so bad I could hardly stand it, but I didn't.
After a workshop was over, there would be a mini-religious service. And one of the leaders from the Coordinating Committee, frequently Jim Beville, would give a --for want of a better word -- a testimonial of why they were involved in this. It was very deeply rooted in faith. He gave a little sermon one time using Moses as the example. Moses was sick and tired of everything that was going on and he had a stick, his staff. Here was Pharaoh with all his mighty armies and Moses with his dried-up stick. Ultimately, Moses throws down the stick and of course it becomes a serpent with great power. And God says, "Grasp it!" And he does and it changes back into the stick. He realizes that you can overcome fear, and that something that terrifies you can become useful. The idea was that we have the most powerful thing in the world -- love -- at our disposal if we grasp it... nonviolent love especially.
It can be the power for change. You can go to war, you can use some sort of weaponry, but the power of love is the only thing that can change people, and that thought began going through me. I began to read the bible a lot more, and it took on deeper meaning for me. My prayer life took on new meaning.
Q: Were you a religious person before you became involved?
Zwerg: That was probably one of the reasons why I even had an interest in this. I had been brought up in the church. I had been active in my church. My parents had instilled in me a view that all men are created equal. But I grew up in a lily-white community. I never had to face any other races. When I went to college it was kind of intriguing to have someone of another race there. I have to be honest with you and say that initially my interest in going to Fisk was more intellectual. How would I feel? I mean, I didn't even think about nonviolence before I went down there. I really was not aware that they were trying to integrate movie-theaters or anything else when I went there. I was more interested in how I was going to act, how I was going to react as a minority.
Q: Did you feel you played a particular role as a white person involved in these protests?
Zwerg: No. I never saw the movement as black-white. To me it was a movement. It was, as you've heard again and again, deeply based in one's faith. And the thing that moved me forward was a realization in my own mind and heart that love is the most powerful force in the universe. I was wrestling with that when they asked if I would try the role of the demonstrator in one of the workshops. And my first reaction was anything but passive and non-violent. I felt some real urges to strike out. Over a period of time, I sensed a change in my view. I sensed a power far greater than any one individual member. Since then I understand that the term is synergism, that the power of many is far greater than any individual.
Q: What do you remember about the first real demonstration you participated in?
Zwerg: The first time that I was in a demonstration was at a particular movie theater. My role, because I was white, was to go to the ticket counter and buy 2 tickets. I was to turn to my black partner, a guy by the name of Bill Harbor, give him a ticket and say "Bill, you want to go to the movies?" And we'd head for the door.
I got the tickets, handed one to Bill. We got through the door, and I got cold-cocked with I don't know what -- a wrench or something, somebody told me. And I got laid out on the floor and pulled back outside. So that was my first demonstration.
What I was to learn over a period of time was that there was a real sequence as to how violence would take place. It would first be directed at a white male, then a black male, a white female, a black female. So while we were attempting to integrate the movie theaters, there were situations where I'd get hit and kicked and spit on and this, that and the other thing. But I was also going through a transformation where nonviolence became more to me than just a technique. It became something that I deeply believed in, that changed my life.
When the management agreed to try to negotiate a settlement, and ultimately open up the theaters, I was asked to be on the steering committee, the central committee, of SNCC in Nashville. I helped write a newsletter. We did some workshops. We would go around and clean up parks in the neighborhoods. These were constructive things we were trying to do when we weren't demonstrating. Demonstrating was the last thing you wanted to do. If you could negotiate something up front, you'd try to.
Q: You got involved in the Freedom Rides...
Zwerg: Well, we got word on the CORE Freedom Ride, and we knew that John Lewis, a member of our organization, was going to be involved in it. We got word of the burning in Aniston... we had a meeting long into the night as soon as we heard about it. The feeling was that if we let those perpetrators of violence believe that people would stop if they were violent enough, then we would take serious steps backwards. Right away the feeling was that we needed to ride. We called Dr. King, we called James Farmer. There was an awareness that our phones were being tapped, so the feeling was that they knew what we were about to do. Our plan was different from CORE's. Whereas they chartered their buses, we were just going to get tickets and get on the bus. We felt that was even more important -- to buy a ticket just like any other traveler. We weren't getting a special bus, we were just going to get on the bus.
It was decided that we would send twelve people. I was one of 18 that volunteered to go. I've been asked why I volunteered to go... I would have to say, at that moment, it wasn't even a question. It was the right thing for me to do. I never second-guessed it.
Q: How did you prepare?
Zwerg: After we had talked it out and I was one of those chosen to go, I went back to my room and spent a lot of time reading the bible and praying. Because of what had happened in Birmingham and in Aniston, because our phones were tapped... none of us honestly expected to live through this. I called my mother and I explained to her what I was going to be doing. My mother's comment was that this would kill my father -- and he had a heart condition -- and she basically hung up on me. That was very hard because these were the two people who taught me to love and when I was trying to live love, they didn't understand. Now that I'm a parent and a grandparent I can understand where they were coming from a bit more. I wrote them a letter to be mailed if I died. We had a little time to pack a suitcase and then we met to go down to the bus.
Q: What was the journey like?
Zwerg: We just got the tickets and got on the bus. I was going to sit in the front of the bus with Paul Brooks. Paul sat by the window; I sat by the aisle. The rest of the blacks and one white girl, Celine McMullen, were going to sit in the back.
It was an uneventful ride until we got to the Birmingham city limits. We were pulled over by the police... They came on the bus and said, "This is a Freedom Rider bus, who's on here from Nashville? And the bus driver pointed to Paul and myself. They came up and really started badgering Paul, you know, "Get up... why aren't you in the back of the bus?" And he said he was very comfortable where he was. So they placed him under arrest. And they asked me to move so they could get to him... and I said, "I'm very comfortable where I am too."
We were both placed under arrest, taken off the bus, seated in the squad car for I don' t know how long. Finally they took us to Birmingham Jail and fingerprinted us. They put me in solitary for a little while. Then they put me in with a fellow who was a felon. I mean, I'm in my suit and tie and I've got my pocket bible with me. I think he thought I was some clergyman making calls. Ultimately they threw me in a drunk tank, with about twenty guys in various states of inebriation, and announced in no uncertain terms that I was a nigger-lover for the Freedom Riders. Here he is, boys, have at him! I didn't know what was going to happen and I kind of said, "How do you guys feel about this? Do you know what they're talking about?" And they started asking me some questions.
One of the things we agreed on is that if you were jailed, number one, you go on a hunger strike, because in our minds we were jailed illegally. You don't cop a plea, you don't pay the bail and jump. You stay. But here I was. One single white guy. And I didn't know what had happened to Paul. I didn't know what had happened to the rest of the people on the bus. I began to see the state that some of drunks were in, and I tried to get some towels and clean up the guys who were sick. I just got talking to some of them and none of them ever laid a hand on me. Basically, we talked about what I believed and what they believed.
I discovered that since the South was predominately Baptist, Catholics were kind of looked down on at the time. Surprisingly, 19 of the 20 guys in the drunk tank were Catholics! So we kind of had something more in common than they realized.
Q: Were you able to contact the other riders?
Zwerg: Frequently, music was the way we communicated in jail. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On has beautifully lyrics...
Paul and Silas bound in jail
got nobody to go our bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
I sang it for my cellmates and they liked it. So I got probably ten of these guys singing with me. They had taken all the rest of the people on the bus into protective custody, and I had heard them singing. Now they could hear this group singing, and know I was okay.
We still had to go to mess even though you didn't eat. One day a fellow came in who was quite sick and I smuggled a sandwich back to the cell for him. I didn't know that act was punishable by three months in jail. But by giving him a sandwich -- suddenly I was a good guy and nobody was going to lay a hand on me. So the two and a half days that we were in jail were fine. We got to know each other. We talked. When I was in court I was really pleased that a number of these guys came over to me and said, "Jim, we really don't agree with you, but we wish you all the best."
Q: What were your thoughts as you rode on the bus?
Zwerg: As we were going from Birmingham to Montgomery, we'd look out the windows and we were kind of overwhelmed with the show of force -- police cars with sub-machine guns attached to the backseats, planes going overhead... We had a real entourage accompanying us. Then, as we hit the city limits, it all just disappeared. As we pulled into the bus station a squad car pulled out -- a police squad car. The police later said they knew nothing about our coming, and they did not arrive until after 20 minutes of beatings had taken place. Later we discovered that the instigator of the violence was a police sergeant who took a day off and was a member of the Klan. They knew we were coming. It was a set-up.
Q: You were attacked when you arrived at the bus station?
Zwerg: The idea had been that cars from the community would meet us. We'd disperse into these cars, get out into the community, and avoid the possibility of violence. And the next morning we were to come back to the station and I would use the colored services and they would go to some of the white services -- the restroom, the water fountain, etc. And then you'd get on the bus and go to the next city. It was meant to be as non-violent as possible, to avoid confrontation as much as possible.
Well, before we got off the bus, we looked out and saw the crowd. You could see things in their hands -- hammers, chains, pipes... there was some conversation about it. As we got off the bus, there was some anxiety. We started looking for the cars. But the mob had surrounded the bus station so there was no way cars could get in and we realized at that moment that we were going to get it.
There was a fellow, a reporter, with an old boom mike and he was panning the crowd. And that's when this heavy-set fellow in a white T-shirt... he had a cigar as I remember... came out and grabbed the mike and jumped on it... just smashed it... basically telling the press, "Back off! You are not going to take any pictures of this. You better stay out or you're going to get it next." You could hear crowd yelling and of course a lot of them were, "Get the nigger-lover!" I was the only white guy there.
I bowed my head and asked God to give me the strength and love that I would need, that I put my life in his hands, and to forgive them. And I had the most wonderful religious experience. I felt a presence as close to me as breath itself, if you will, that gave me peace knowing that whatever came, it was okay. Before I opened my eyes, I was grabbed. I was pulled over a railing and thrown to the ground. I remember trying to get up on all fours because you try to get back to your group.
One of the things that I alluded to earlier was the strength we got from one another. To this day I'm sure I'm not the most nonviolent person in the world, but the strength of those people with me gave me strength beyond my own capabilities. Just as when we would see someone else being beaten, our hearts went to them and our strength went to them.
Q: Were you hurt?
Zwerg: Traditionally a white man got picked out for the violence first. That gave the rest of the folks a chance to get away. I was told that several tried to get into the bus terminal. I was knocked to the ground. I remember being kicked in the spine and hearing my back crack, and the pain. I fell on my back and a foot came down on my face. The next thing I remember is waking up in the back of a vehicle and John Lewis handing me a rag to wipe my face. I passed out again and when I woke up I was in another moving vehicle with some very southern-sounding whites. I figured I'm off to get lynched. I had no idea who they were. Again, I went unconscious and I woke up in the hospital. I was informed that I had been unconscious for a day and a half. One of the nurses told me that another little crowd were going to try and lynch me. They had come within a half block of the hospital. She said that she knocked me out in case they did make it, so that I would not be aware of what was happening. I mean, those pictures that appeared in the magazines, the interview... I don't remember them at all. I do remember a class of students -- I think they were high school age, coming to visit me one time.
Q: What was your family's reaction to all this?
Zwerg: My dad did have a mild coronary and my mother came close to having a nervous breakdown. One of the things that I have discovered since, after having had a chance to really talk with several of the others, is that almost all of us had some form of real emotional problems with family or personally, in one way or another. Some people had a really hard time -- after having had such a tremendous support group and atmosphere of love -- having to readapt.
Others have encountered some medical problems, things like that. For years and years, I was never able to discuss it with my dad. He just... you could just see the blood pressure go up. I think my mother ultimately understood. I went through some psychotherapy when I was in seminary, just because of the anger that developed. Again, these people who loved me and taught me to love didn't love what I was doing when I put my life on the line. I had to wrestle with that and work it through.
Q: Where is the movement today?
Zwerg: A few years ago I was asked to get on a bus and ride back into Montgomery. Sitting across from me, behind the black bus driver, was a young black man. A TV crew asked him to move so they could put their equipment on his seat and he came over and sat by me. I got talking with him; he was going to visit his grandmother in Montgomery. And I asked him, "Did they tell you what we're doing? Did they tell you why we're doing this?" And he said, "No, sir." And I told him, "Well, 25 years ago, you and I could not sit on a bus like this. Some of my friends and I helped integrate the bus system between states." And I got back this, "Oh."
I don't feel bad that a young black man can get on a bus that's being driven by a black bus driver and go to visit his grandmother and not be thinking, "Oh, how wonderful that 25 years ago some people made this possible." It's normal, it's expected, there's no big deal about it. You get on a bus, you go visit grandma. Did we accomplish something? Yes, we accomplished something! Is there a lot more to accomplish? Sure there is! There are still pockets, north and south, of people who just don't accept you for the color of your skin, your nationality, whatever.
I now have two grandchildren of mixed blood. They're beautiful. Tucson, where I live today, is a wonderful amalgam of culture -- Native American, Hispanic, white, black, Asian... It's so wonderful for my kids, and my children's children, to be growing up in an atmosphere like that. When my middle son was tiny, I remember, we had a little neighbor girl who was his first love. I mean she was just something special. We were talking one day about how Leann was adopted. She was Korean and my John had never noticed that. He said, "She's adopted? Daddy, why is she adopted?" I thought, "That's what it's all about." I mean, I look at my grandkids -- I've got one little boy who is part-Korean, part-black, part-white... he's an American, for crying out loud. He's not a Korean-American, he's not a Black-American, he's not a White-American. He's an American, and he's a wonderful little boy.
I don't think we should forget what happened in the past, but I also don't think we should dwell on it. "You brought my ancestors here on slave ships, you owe me!" No, we don't. You're owed an opportunity. Everybody ought to have the same opportunity to excel. You may fall flat on your face. But I think that's what we accomplished. We opened that door to possibility that had been shut in the past. Everybody is starting at the same spot now. We can go as far, as fast, as high as we want to and nothing should stop us. I think there's been a change, but certainly we can always do better. We don't call the United States paradise yet.
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