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.
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.