Tag: Freedom Riders

Lawrence awarding honorary degree to civil rights Freedom Rider James Zwerg

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James Zwerg

Forged by a family-like bond they formed through shared courage, they still often greet each other as “Brother John” and “Brother Jim.”

Appleton native James Zwerg and Congressman John Lewis, who met each other in Nashville, Tenn., as college students and shared a seat on the front of Greyhound bus in 1961 as Freedom Riders, will be reunited Sunday, June 14 at Lawrence University’s 166th Commencement which will be available via livestream.

Lewis and Zwerg, both of whom exhibited extraordinary bravery in the civil rights movement, will be awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters degree by Lawrence as part of the university’s commencement exercise, which begins at 10:30 a.m. on Main Hall green. Lewis will deliver the 2015 Commencement address.

As a frontline eyewitness to one of the most volatile  chapters in the country’s history of race relations, Zwerg, 75, is concerned with what he sees today as a regression in dealing with today’s race issues.

“I still believe that nonviolence is the answer, but I’m terribly disappointed in seeing the violence and the looting,” said Zwerg in a recent phone interview regarding episodes in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md. “I find that so many youth today are not aware of the sacrifice that their grandparents, and maybe parents, made to make life better. That bond we had within the movement wasn’t based on color. We respected everyone. Each person has a personal worth and should be respected for that. Diversity should be celebrated and it’s not happening today.”

Born in Appleton at a time the 1940 city census listed just one person as “Negro,” the 1958 graduate of Appleton High School (the only public high school in Appleton at the time) became engaged in the civil rights movement as a 21-year-old student. While attending Beloit College, where he had an African-American roommate his freshman year, Zwerg participated in an exchange program that took him to Nashville’s Fisk University, a historically black university.

Shortly after his arrival, he met Lewis and soon became involved with demonstrations against segregation, participating in lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater stand-ins while subjecting himself to repeated verbal abuse and physical assaults. As one of the few white men involved in the peaceful protests, Zwerg often drew targeted abuse as a “n****r lover.”

Zwerg credits Lewis’ own steely resolve for motivating him to get involved.

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A stop in Montgomery, Ala., on a Freedom Ride in 1961 left both John Lewis (left) and James Zwerg bloodied and battered.

“You could see this deep commitment he had to nonviolence,” Zwerg said of his initial contact with John Lewis in a recent interview. “His face was extremely strong. He didn’t talk a lot, but when John spoke, everybody listened. There was just this quiet strength about him.”

In May, 1961, Zwerg was one of 10 student Freedom Riders — and the only white male — to board a bus in Nashville bound for New Orleans. For part of the ride, he shared a seat with Lewis.

On the way, Zwerg was among several students arrested in Birmingham, Ala., where he spent two and a half days in jail. In Montgomery, the Freedom Riders were met at the bus station by an angry mob, armed with bricks, pipes, hammers and chains. One man carried a pitchfork.

“When I volunteered to go, I realized that if anybody was going to get killed, it would probably be me,” Zwerg recalled. “Because they hated the white n****r lover. You were a disgrace to the white race. I had already experienced that in Nashville. I was the traitor. I fully knew and accepted the possibility of my death.”

Zwerg wasn’t killed, but was beaten so badly — a severe concussion, a broken nose, a broken thumb, half his teeth were broken, three cracked vertebrae, numerous cuts and bruises — he spent five days in a hospital.

Photos of a beaten Zwerg ran in national magazines as well as newspapers around the world. His mother, who graduated from Lawrence in 1928, had a nervous breakdown and his father, who attended Lawrence in the 1920s, suffered a heart attack after hearing the news reports of their son’s beating.

“Segregation must be stopped. It must be broke down,” Zwerg said in an interview from his Montgomery hospital bed that was broadcast on the national news. “We’re going on to New Orleans no matter what. We’re dedicated to this. We’ll take hitting. We’ll take beating. We’re willing to accept death.”

When I volunteered to go, I realized that if anybody was going to get killed, it would probably be me. I was the traitor. I fully knew and accepted the possibility of my death.”
— James Zwerg

The statement galvanized the country, sending participants of all colors and persuasions to the segregated South, ending the Freedom Rides by the end of 1962.

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The bond forged between John Lewis and James Zwerg in the 1960s during the civil rights movement remains strong more than 50 years later. Photo courtesy Greyhound Lines, Inc.

“Spiritually, I was never so alive as I was during that time of the movement,” Zwerg recalled of his experiences in Montgomery. “I bowed my head and prayed. I asked God to be with me, to help me remain nonviolent and to forgive them. I had the most incredible religious experience of my life because I felt a presence. I felt surrounded by love. I was at peace and I knew with certainty that whether I lived or whether I died, it was going to be ok.”

While Zwerg won’t be addressing the graduates at commencement, he says it is important young people get involved with with an issue that resonates with them.

“I don’t think I can say what they should be focused on, that’s up to the individual,” said Zwerg. “Unfortunately a lot of the kids seem to think you have to be involved in something of national scope. It doesn’t have to be a big earth-shattering thing. I don’t care what the issue is, if it’s something you deeply believe in, look around and see if there are others that feel the same way. You could organize or act on your own. Don’t accept that dirty joke, don’t accept that racial slur.”

Zwerg went on to graduate from Beloit College in 1962 and later earned a degree in theology at Garret Theological Seminary. Ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ, he served churches in Wisconsin until 1970 when he moved to Tucson, Ariz., to become minister of the Casas Adobes United Church of Christ.

He left the active pastorate in 1975 and spent the rest of his career in a variety of non-profit community relations positions in Tuscon and in management with IBM.

Today he lives in retirement near the small town of Ramah in northwest New Mexico.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2015 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.

Civil rights icon John Lewis to deliver Lawrence commencement address June 14

He met Rosa Parks when he was 17 years old. He met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was 18.

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Congressman John Lewis

He spoke at the 1963 March on Washington when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

He was beaten as he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the day in 1965 that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

He organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., as a college student and was among the Freedom Riders who helped pave the way for the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act.

He has described himself as “a soldier in a nonviolent army.”

Congressman John Lewis, a genuine American historic figure and living legend in civil rights activism, has spent nearly all of his 75 years of life getting in the way — what he calls “good trouble” — on behalf of social justice.

In the 50th anniversary year of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Lewis will deliver Lawrence University’s 166th Commencement address Sunday, June 14. He will be joined on stage by another instrumental figure in the  civil rights movement, Appleton native James Zwerg, one of the courageous Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. Both men will be recognized with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

Commencement exercises begin at 10:30 a.m. on Main Hall green. A live webcast of the commencement ceremony will be available at http://www.livestream.com/lawrenceuniversity.

“Becoming an engaged citizen is one of the central tenets of a liberal arts education and so we are proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 at this year’s commencement, which provided a path to an essential right for many people in this country,” said President Mark Burstein. “We look forward to welcoming Congressman Lewis back to campus and having Mr. Zwerg represent local participation in the events that led up to the legislative passage of The Act.”

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Congressman Lewis has visited Lawrence twice previously, including 2005, when he delivered the university convocation “Get in the Way.”

This will be the third visit to Lawrence by the son of an Alabama sharecropper who has represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since 1986. Lewis’ first trip to Lawrence came in April 1964 as head field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to speak at a campus-sponsored “Civil Rights Week” event. He returned to campus in February, 2005 to deliver the university convocation “Get in the Way.”

While still in his early 20s, Lewis, whose forehead still bears a scar from Bloody Sunday, already had established himself as a nationally recognized leader in the civil rights movement. His engagement with the  movement included three years (1963-66) as the chair of the SNCC. He later served as the director of the Voter Education Project, helping to add nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis head of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.

Lewis’ efforts and contributions toward building what he as calls “the beloved community” in America have been recognized with dozens of prestigious awards, among them the 2010 Medal of Freedom, the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the National Education Association’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award and the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for lifetime achievement.

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Former Freedom Rider James Zwerg (left) and civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis will be recognized with honorary degrees June 14 at Lawrence’s 166th commencement. Photo courtesy of Beloit College.

A graduate of Fisk University and the American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lewis is the author of “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” which received the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work-Biography and the graphic novel memoir trilogy “March.”

The first volume of “March” reached no. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and was included on lists of the best books of 2013 by the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Horn Book Review, Booklist and others.

The trilogy’s second installment, which examines Lewis’ days as a Freedom Rider, was released in January.

Burstein will preside over his second commencement as president. Lawrence is expected to award bachelor degrees to 281 students from 28 states and seven countries during Commencement.

Retiring faculty member, Jane Parish Yang, associate professor, department of Chinese and Japanese, will be recognized for her 24 years of teaching with an honorary master of arts degrees, ad eundem, as part of the graduation ceremonies.

In addition to Lewis, Burstein, Lawrence Board of Trustees Chair Susan Stillman Kane ’72 and senior Mallory Speck from St. Charles, Ill., also will address the graduates.

Prior to Commencement, Lawrence will hold a baccalaureate service Saturday, June 13 at 11 a.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Julie McQuinn, associate professor of music, presents “Cinderellas and Cyborgs: Ritual, Imagination and Transformation.” The baccalaureate service and commencement exercise are both free and open to the public.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2015 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.

Congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights Activist James Zwerg to Receive Honorary Degrees at Lawrence Commencement

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act, Lawrence University will honor two civil rights pioneers who were instrumental in the passage of that legislation.

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Congressman John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis, an iconic figure in civil rights activism, and Appleton native James Zwerg, one of the courageous Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, will each receive honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees June 14 at the college’s 166th commencement. Lewis also will deliver the principal commencement address.

This will be Lewis’ third appearance at Lawrence. He first visited in April 1964 as Head Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to speak at a campus-sponsored “Civil Rights Week” event. He returned in February, 2005 to deliver the university convocation “Get in the Way.”

“Becoming an engaged citizen is one of the central tenets of a liberal arts education and so we are proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 at this year’s commencement, which provided a path to an essential right for many people in this country,” said President Mark Burstein. “We look forward to welcoming Congressman Lewis back to campus and having Mr. Zwerg represent local participation in the events that led up to the legislative passage of The Act.”

John-Lewis-convo_newsblog
Congressman John Lewis spoke on the importance of student activism in the protection of human rights and civil liberties in the 2005 Lawrence convocation “Get in the Way.”

Lewis has represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since 1986. He has been at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement for more than 50 years, beginning with sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., he organized as a student at Fisk University.

A participant in the 1965 march from Selma, Ala., to the capital in Montgomery, Lewis will be among a delegation of more than 90 members of Congress who will visit Alabama the weekend of March 6-8 for ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march that became known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers attacked marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Chronicled in the 2014 film “Selma,” the march, and its violent conclusion, galvanized the country and hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year, prohibiting the denial or abridgment of the right to vote nationwide.

“Selma” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar at last month’s Academy Awards ceremonies while “Glory” from the film’s soundtrack won the Oscar for Best Song.

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Freedom Rider James Zwerg was attacked by a mob in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961. The only white male student among the group, Zwerg stands outside the bus station after being beaten, resulting in numerous cuts, bruises and the loss of several teeth. Photo courtesy of The Montgomery Advertiser.

Lewis, whose forehead still bears a scar from Bloody Sunday, has spent his entire adult life fighting injustice and protecting human rights. While still in his early 20s, Lewis had established himself as a nationally recognized leader in the Civil Rights movement, organizing sit-ins and participating in the segregation-challenging Freedom Rides across the South.

As a 23-year old, Lewis helped organize and spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington, in which Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis is the lone surviving member among the speakers at that event.

His engagement with the Civil Rights Movement included three years (1963-66) as the chair of the SNCC. He later served as the director of the Voter Education Project, helping to add nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis head of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency.

Lewis’ efforts and contributions toward building what he as calls “the beloved community” in America have been recognized with dozens of prestigious awards, among them the 2010 Medal of Freedom, the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the National Education Association’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award and the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” for lifetime achievement.

A graduate of Fisk University and the American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lewis is the author of “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” which received the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Best Literary Work-Biography and the graphic novel memoir trilogy “March.”

The first volume of “March” reached no. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and was included on lists of the best books of 2013 by the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Horn Book Review, Booklist and others.

The trilogy’s second installment, which examines Lewis’ days as a Freedom Rider, was released last month.

James-Zwerg_newsblog
James Zwerg

Zwerg, who was born and raised in Appleton, became engaged in the Civil Rights Movement as a 21-year-old exchange student at Fisk University from Beloit College.

While at Fisk, Zwerg participated in lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater stand-ins in Nashville, resulting in repeated verbal abuse and physical assaults. He joined the Freedom Riders in1961 and was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Ala., and severely beaten in Montgomery, Ala. Photos of Zwerg taken after his beating appeared in Time and Life magazines as well as newspapers around the world.

His efforts were widely chronicled in articles, television documentaries and the book “Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Rev. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference honored Zwerg in 1961 with the prestigious Freedom Award. He also has been recognized with the Church Women United, USA, Human Rights Award and the Martin-Springer Institute’s Moral Courage Award.

Zwerg graduated from Beloit College in 1962 and later earned a degree in theology at Garret Theological Seminary. Ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ, he served churches in Wisconsin until 1970 when he moved to Tucson, Ariz., to become minister of the Casas Adobes United Church of Christ.  Retired, he lives in rural New Mexico.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2015 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.