Photo: (c) Bettmann / Corbis
Freedom Riders endured abuse and violence to challenge the South's history of segregation and discrimination. Here, members of a group called "The Washington Freedom Riders Committee" hang signs on the side of their bus, parked near the crossroads cafe at Times Square May 30, 1961, before leaving for Washington, D.C.
In 1961, 15 young men and women boarded a bus in Nashville, Tennessee, in hopes of igniting change. Their ride into Birmingham, Alabama would defy the South's Jim Crow laws and continue the efforts of earlier Freedom Riders.
Among the riders was Jim Zwerg, a 21-year-old white man from Wisconsin whose friendship with a black roommate led him into the civil rights movement.
Growing up in a "lily-white" town, Zwerg had never witnessed or experienced racism until he saw the treatment his friend endured. He applied for an exchange program to predominantly black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and once there immediately became active in sit-ins, protests and other nonviolent demonstrations. When brutal attacks on the first Freedom Riders cut short their symbolic journey, Zwerg signed up for the very next ride.
As one of only two white riders on the bus, Zwerg was targeted with particular ferocity when the Nashville Freedom Riders rolled into Montgomery, Alabama. During a riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, Zwerg sustained a beating that nearly took his life. But later that evening, as reporters interviewed him in his hospital bed, he remained resolute.
"We're willing to accept death" to bring down segregation, he told them. His commitment inspired young people across the nation.
Zwerg survived his injuries and eventually settled in Tucson, where he served for several years in the ministry. He spoke with Arizona Public Media producer Tom Kleespie on April 26, 2011. Click to watch the full interview: