An Appleton hero

The next time Appleton names a school after someone, I hope they consider calling it Jim Zwerg.

Born and raised in Appleton, Zwerg became an unlikely, literal poster child for the civil rights movement.

Given the volumes of articles written about him, I am disappointed in myself and in my Appleton public and private school education that I only recently became aware of his story, thanks to the “Stone of Hope” exhibit at the Appleton History Museum at the Castle.

I read a small blurb about him and then went home and dug into various articles and books.

According to them all, Zwerg first became “woke” to the plight of minorities when he saw how people treated Robert Carter, his college roommate and one of a handful of black students on campus at Beloit College in 1959.

The next year, Zwerg volunteered to be an exchange student at Fisk College, an all-black university in Nashville, Tennessee. There he became heavily involved in integration efforts, which eventually culminated in his participation in the Freedom Riders, a caravan of buses that rode south in support of desegregation laws, especially as they related to public transportation.

All the riders knew they faced violence and many, including Zwerg, had already been beaten in previous encounters. Still, the buses rolled on.

According to “Children of the Movement,” a book by John Blake, Zwerg  volunteered to be first off the bus when it arrived in Montgomery, Alabama after the riders had spent the night under police protection in the Birmingham terminal.

Fellow Freedom Rider Lucretia Collins described the beating Zwerg received from members of the enormous crowd, according to the book “When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better.”

“Some men held him while white women clawed his face with their nails. And they held up their little children  — children who couldn’t have been more than a couple of years old – to claw his face. I had to turn my head back because I just couldn’t watch it,” she said.

Later, reporters, who had initially been barred from the scene, arrived and an Associated Press photographer, who sadly remains anonymous, took a photo of the bruised and bloodied Zwerg that was distributed around the world.

Jim Zwerg

Beaten so badly he broke two vertebrae, shattered his teeth and blackened both eyes, Zwerg eventually passed out.

“They knocked him over the rail, picked him up and knocked him over the other side. Back and forth. Punching him with their fists over and over. He was unconscious. He didn’t even know what was going on. He was lucky to live,” said fellow Freedom Rider and Fisk classmate Bernard Lafayette in a USA Today article.

Interviewed from his hospital bed, Zwerg’s words became a rallying cry for the movement. You can see the short but powerful interview here:

An unlikely hero, Zwerg earned a Freedom Medal from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who encouraged him to become an ordained minister. He is currently retired and lives with his wife in Arizona.

Zwerg’s commitment to the Freedom Riders and their crusade through the segregated south might seem incongruent to his privileged background as a young white son of a dentist in Appleton, Wisconsin.

But, it’s really not. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Zwerg received an honorary doctorate from Lawrence University (along with fellow Freedom Rider and longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis).

I think Zwerg’s story should be part of the K-12 AASD and ACES curriculum, and I’m serious about that school.




14 thoughts on “An Appleton hero

  1. Wonderful article, Laura. And I agree with you, his story should be part of the curriculum. Perhaps a street should have his Nama.

      1. A street seems very appropriate for a Freedom Rider. How can that be accomplished.

      2. I’m not sure what the process is exactly but I’ll look into it.

  2. Thank you. I’ve lived here 25 years and never heard of him. I’m so grateful you wrote this.

    1. Thanks for reading it Andrea. I’ve lived here most of my life and I did not know this story either.

  3. Thank you for your kind words. I was just one of many who embraced nonviolent direct action as a way to bring about social change. Having been a part of the Nashville Student Movement changed my life. I have been richly blessed and need no further recognition. I am pleased that many schools do have classes on the Civil Rights Movement and the various types of demonstrations that took place. Unfortunately, there are those who would remove or change many of the rights we strove to achieve…voter rights, equal opportunity, justice and freedom.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I am so grateful that you took the time to read this piece. While I understand that you neither need nor seek recognition for your heroic efforts, I do think yours and all of the Freedom Riders stories need to be honored, told and taught in our schools. I think it’s always valuable for people to see that standing up for a cause you believe in takes guts, and that when you commit to that cause you can bring about actual change. In your particular case, I think it’s even more important for people to see that, while it might seem that you were fighting for a cause that wasn’t even your own, you really were out there fighting for yourself and all of us too because “injustice for one is injustice for all.” I don’t think we have to work too hard to see that same principle applied to what’s going on in this country today. So, again, thank you so much!

    2. Thank You, Mr. Zwerg. There is no greater love. Your bravery as a young man and love of humanity, coupled with a free and unfettered press, at that time, made the difference when the nation and the world saw, with their own eyes, the ugliness and dishonesty that masqueraded as states’ rights in the “land of the free, home of the brave.” Much progress was made because of your sacrifice and love of your fellow human beings. I hope your life has been one filled with the love of family and friends and all the true riches that life can afford.

  4. Thanks for the story. We need to know the history, to study the history, in order to understand today’s events.

  5. Thanks for the education, Laura. He’s new to me, as well. I’m sure I’ll never know all of the names of those who fought against segregation, but they should all be remembered. What courage that took!

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