Monday, February 01, 2010



By Kevin Stoda, History and Political Science Instructor

I was listening to Democracy Now this morning and I got to know about a Caucasian Midwesterner named James Zwerg in a lengthy interview with a fellow 1961 Freedom Rider, named Bernard Lafeyette, with DN host Amy Goodman.

Zwerg, which in German means dwarf or munchkin, is a living legend for my fellow Midwesterners back in the USA. Yet hardly any of us know who he is are or was.

Zwerge and 11 others changed American history for all time back in 1961-1962. These 12 disciples (black and white) of non-violence started the Freedom Rider wave that transformed American participation in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s—a decade of positive activism. They challenged the local and national government to support the Supreme Courts December 1960 decision outlawing segregation on interstate transport.

Incidentally, last month, my alma mater, Bethel College in Kansas, had celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to that Midwestern college campus. MLK’s visit took place to Bethels just a year before Freedom Riding first began to leave an impression on American memory.

Jim Zwerg had been attending a small college in Beloit, Wisconsin that same year, 1960. A black roommate there had given him a copy of MLK’s STRIVE TOWARDS FREEDOM to read. After reading Kins’ work, Zwerg was hooked and as a sociology student, he became extremely fascinated by the Black experience in America, which Zwerg had only pereipherally known until attending Beloit.

The very next year Jim Zwerg found himself as an exchange student at Nashville’s Fisk University.

Zwerg, in his DN interview this morning, reveals that he had inadvertently started a local push in Nashville to desegregate the city’s cinemas when he had naively asked his black fellow students at Fisk to go to the movies with him. For that local movement to desegregate the cinemas of Nashville, many Nashville students were subsequently trained in Non-Violence techniques for the first time by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.

After CORE leaders and trainers left Nashville again, these activist students quickly realized that they could and would not simply stop. They knew that they had been empowered, and eventually America would change.

In Nashville, these twelve young disciples of these principles of non-violence (including James Zwerg) soon acted in opposition to elder community leaders and civil rights activists. They decided to take on the segregated South transportation network of 1961 without any master plan.

Those 12 college students determined to ride buses and trains—blacks and whites together across the South until something happened. When they got arrested and beat up, waves and waves of other Americans followed their examples, creating the Freedom Rider movement of America

Following the release of an exciting new documentary of the same name, by Stanley Nelson, shown at the Sundance Film Festivals this past weekend, THE FREEDOM RIDERS is the focus this week on Democracy Now.

However, I (for one) am thankful for the lengthy focus in DN on the story of James Zwerg.


[Currently, I can’t even find a Wikipedia page on this guy named James Zwerg.]

Well, I am a Caucasian American History instructor from the Midwest USA and I cannot recall ever hearing of Mr. James Zwerg before.

In real life, my new hero, Mr. Zwerg had the hell beat out of him as he stood up for what was right and movement spread across and around the South. Many of those racists called him a traitor to his (white) race and lost all his front teeth.

As he tells the story today, James Zwerg modestly says, “I got a good whooping.”

He shrugs it off—because he knew the beatings and jailings were destined to come his way--once he and the other 11 students from Nashville had determined in 1961 to ride the buses together into Mississippi and Alabama. [Another person interviewed for the documentary noted that all 12 had written their own wills before leaving Nashville.]



Blogger Kevin Anthony Stoda said...

Before the Freedom Rides in 1961 were the sit-ins in--

Greensboro, North Carolina -
Feb. 1, 1960 - Feb. 1, 2010

By Tom Hayden [an excerpt from The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama]

"Flashbacks briefly affected me as I arrived in Greensboro [in 2008]. The look of many buildings and streets had changed little. When I glimpsed white pedestrians walking along he street where the sit-ins had occurred, a former sense of high alert briefly returned. I felt something like a ghost.
The old Woolworth's was still there, on the corner of a street now renamed February 1st, its shell being reconstructed, slowly as an international civil rights museum. The old lunch counter, swivel chairs and serving area have not changed since 1960. I sat down where David Richmond, Ezell Blair [Jibreel Khazan], Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil [and others] were arrested for politely asking for coffee so long ago. Then I shared coffee and conversation with local people trying to complete the work of memory..." (p. 173)

In 2001, the state legislature, reflecting African-American constituencies, eventually provided $2.5 million, with downtown developers and large corporations such as tobacco firms pledging millions more. As a 2004 New York Times story reported, the tourism potential of civil rights battlegrounds "has shown that the history of the 50s and 60s is a valuable commodity." [Aug. 10, 2004]

Who could have imagined that the brutal scenes of the early Sixties would become tourism magnets fifty years later? The final battle of the Sixties, the battle over memory, is underway.

To learn more about and support the Greensboro museum, go to

For an excellent history and guide to these historic sites, see Charles Cobb, On the Road to Freedom, Chapel Hill, 2008.

Be prepared for the battle of memory! A complete dateline for all the protests of the '60s is available in Tom Hayden's The Long Sixties. You can receive a free autographed copy of the book for a tax-deductible donation of $25 or higher to the Peace and Justice Resource Center.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin Anthony Stoda said...

Is a more recent article on a famous pacifist who has been ignored in USA and European education for too long.

4:06 PM  

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