Shocking photo created a hero, but not to his family
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from John Blake’s 2004 book “Children of the Movement.” The PBS documentary “Freedom Riders,” which airs Monday at 9 p.m. ET, features James Zwerg, now 71. Blake interviewed him in 2003. This report contains objectionable language.
(CNN) — The mob was already waiting for James Zwerg by the time the Greyhound bus eased into the station in Montgomery, Alabama.
Looking out the window, Zwerg could see men gripping baseball bats, chains and clubs. They had sealed off the streets leading to the bus station and chased away news photographers. They didn’t want anyone to witness what they were about to do.
Zwerg accepted his worst fear: He was going to die today.
Only the night before, Zwerg had prayed for the strength to not strike back in anger. He was among the 18 white and black college students from Nashville who had decided to take the bus trip through the segregated South in 1961. They called themselves Freedom Riders. Their goal was to desegregate public transportation.
Zwerg had not planned to go, but the night before, some students had asked him to join them. To summon his courage, Zwerg stayed up late, reading Psalm 27, the scripture that the students had picked to read during a group prayer before their trip.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I fear?” the Psalm began. But there was another passage at the end that touched Zwerg in a place the other students didn’t know about:“Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will receive me.”
Zwerg’s parents had forsaken him for joining the civil rights movement. That same night, he had written a letter that was to be handed to them in case he was killed. It explained his decision to join the Freedom Riders.
Zwerg called his mother to tell her where he was going.
“Don’t go. Don’t go,” she said. “You can’t do this to your father.”
“I have no choice. I have to,” he said.
“You killed your father,” his mother replied. Then she hung up.
The Greyhound bus doors hissed open. Zwerg had volunteered to go first. The mob swarmed him as he stepped off the bus, yelling, “Nigger lover! Nigger lover!”
Then, as the mob grabbed him, Zwerg closed his eyes and bowed his head to pray. “The Lord is my light and salvation, of whom shall I fear … “
The mob dragged him away.