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fb wide enough that he can put this in here so that it can actually be of support to him because the base of the chair is open. Right. So. let's call our friend.[Inaudible] [Inaudible] I don't think. Stay put? I can double it. [Inaudible].Is it wide enough? This will work. It will probably pop up.
[Several speakers]That ones not bad. If. Is it working? Are you comfortable? It is better than this one. [Inaudible]. Yup. [Speaker 1]At last. [Speaker2]We are rolling sound. and thank you very much Matthew for your time. I really really. [Speaker1] [Inaudible] [Speaker 2] You are welcome. [Speaker1] Lets start [Speaker1] Why did you go down? Were you a part of the sit-in's? [Speaker2] No. No. I went to Nashville as a result of experiences in . . . college with a Black roommate and see the . . . prejudice that he incolored and wondered how i would react if i was the minority and our college had this exchange program with Fisk so I applied for it [Speaker1]and was accepted.[Speaker 2] Were you excited to go? i didn't know what to expect i was very naive
as far as what life in the South was like. My whole . . . hometown was lily white all the way through high school. I never had a classmate who of color of any minority so having my Black roommate in new college was kind of a first. and to see what happened there. I was ??? to see what would happen I didn't go down there with any intentions to get involved. When you arrived. What was it like being in Nashville. Did you feel like you were in the middle of an [Speaker 1]exciting atmosphere? [Speaker 2] At the time . . . I arrived a day before more students arrived. There were some there on campus. And, you know. I went over and got my room. Went over to the union. Was going to get something to eat down in in their little cafeteria area and there were a few students down there. A jukebox playing
and i ordered and as i was getting my food a young man came over invited me to join him and his girlfriend in there booth. And I did And enjoyed our conversation. Getting to know one another a little bit about each other there was some dancing going on. Which I I was kind of going 'Wow' I had never seen dancing like that and i asked what it was and they said the 'Twist.' Well the 'Twist' in wisconsin was a very flat footed conservative twist and i made the mistake of saying well I know how to 'Twist.' So his girlfriend said come on out. You know dance with me. Well I made an ass out of myself. But I had a lot of of people coming over and saying 'do this' and 'lift that leg' and turn around and spin here. here. We just had a really nice time getting to know one another. And I was enjoying it so much. I said hey you know. Lets go out
Looked at my watch and said 'Hey, we have got time. Why don't we take in a movie this afternoon.' And I was told that we couldn't go to a movie together. We could not sit together we could not use the same restrooms we could not use the same snack bar area. And my, first reaction was just one of astonishment. You have got to be kidding me. It doesn't make any sense. and they explained that they were segregated but that that year, that semester they were were going to be launching a campaign to integrate the movie theaters and the two of them had been involved in the sit-in's a year before. So they invited me to join them at a meeting at a faculty member who was the sponsor if you will for the Fisk students a fellow by the name of Dr. Fewson, who was Quaker. And
[Speaker 1]so i went with them to that meeting. That was kind of my introduction to the movement. [Speaker 2] That is great so when you are trying to get into the movement. Could you maybe re-state a little summary of meeting friends and trying to find out you are segregated. you cannot be together and you decide to join the movement I didn't make any initial decision to go into the movement. again, I was informed there was going to be a demonstration the next day. I went down to observe it. found it . . . not very significant in my eyes. The students just stood there on the sidewalk. They didn't have any placards. They weren't singing any songs. and I watched for about a half an hour. there were a few hecklers.
but I don't know no violence. And I don't know how long it had been going on when i got there but i finally went across the street and went up to the person at the end of the line and asked them what is it really, you are trying to accomplish. I have been watching you and it doesn't seem to me like much is happening. Well I was surprised to be referred to their spokesman and i approach their spokesman who was a young man and again asked the same questions and was informed that the demonstration was going to be ending if i'd like to follow them back to the church where they met he would be happy to talk with me. That young man was John Louis. and so i followed them back and got talking with John John and was just totally swept off my feet, by him
he was a young man younger than me by six months or so but he just seemed to have it together in an incredible way. He was attending seminary had a deep faith he had obviously been a leader the year before and the in the sit-in's. Deeply committed to non-violence. But he had he had. He wasn't what you expect to be a leader. He had quite a speech impediment. Not particularly good looking but there was this quiet strength about him I ultimately became came to call him the 'rock' of the movement in Nashville because he was. But in talking with him. After a period of time he explained that there was going to be a workshop on non-violence and if i wanted to go and observe it I
could. So I did. I quite did not grow up being non-violent. I had a very short fuse. Did not envision myself ever becoming non-violent. Went to the workshop strictly as an observer spent pretty much a month doing that but at the same time i'm doing a lot of soul searching re reading the scripture passages that were used during the workshops wrestling with my own faith. Praying about it a lot and initially cited I wanted to do something but I worked behind the scenes and helped Leo Lillards start the newsletter. There were a number of different schools involved and we put together a newsletter to keep the students informed of what had happened and what was planned for the future and so that that's where I kind of got my
toe wet. After a while I was asked to take the role of a heckler during the workshop side of the workshops. I mean you also had what you are Speaker 1] was kind of two parts. I don't know if anybody. [Speaker 2][Inaudible] ????. [Speaker 2] I am sorry. Would you mind starting over, again? [Speaker3] Yeah. We are rolling again. [Speaker 1] Ok there were two parts . . . to to the workshops. The first part was very much like a church service the freedom songs were sung. Scripture passages were read. Students would give testimonials also to what being in the movement meant to them or non-violence and having accepted it it as their way of life. Jim Beville usually was the one that gave some kind of a little sermonette that that was based on scripture
but then the second half was the actual workshop and that was extremely intense role playing Jim Lawson would set out a scenario were violence might occur during a demonstration you would discuss how you would deal with that and and then they;d actually do it. Those students that were interested in demonstrating. You just didn't demonstrate, in Nashville anyway you went through this process of. 'I would like to demonstrate' you go to the workshop. You take the role of a potential demonstrator and you are are tested. You are spit on. You are hit. You are threatened with cigarette butts. You are kicked, you are whatever you might expect expect downtown. Threatened with a knife you name it. Called all kinds of nasty things. It
If you broke, you didn't demonstrate. You were not not told that you couldn't be part of the movement but, you were asked to take a supporting role. Providing transportation to and from the schools. Helping make sandwiches for the students after a demonstration. Helping distribute the newsletter to other campuses. on days where we might not be demonstrating they held work camps at senior citizens homes, children's centers, cleaning up vacant lots painting toys. Whatever it might be. So there were lots of different [Speaker 1] opportunites. But you were not going to be a demonstrator. [Speaker 2] So how did that [Inaudible] And then how was that? When you said that you didn't know that you could be [Speaker 1] non-violent . . . and. [Speaker 2] Well, you know. I was wrestling with
the various passages that were used and hearing the testimonials and getting to to know the students themselves more there was an incredible bond a deep love and respect and support I believe the right word is synergism. I may be wrong on that. But that the group itself gave strength much more than any individual and you saw that if there was violence that the others gave you strength while you were being beaten or hit or whatever it might be so you were able to stand a whole lot more then you might've been if you're alone and that tremendous support and the emotional lift that came from, from the freedom songs. I love the
music. When, when we sang. 'Ain't going to let nobody turn me around.' You weren't just singing a song. You were making a statement of fact and it, it gave you. It, it strengthened you. Depending on the circumstances. It might have been you you know I am going sit at the 'welcome table' when we were having a sit-in to test some of the places that that supposedly had opened or had not The anthem before we would go out to demonstrate was always, 'We shall overcome.' We always got up made a circle. Held hands with the right hand over the left because right was ultimately going to be successful and saying that and if we were going to demonstrate that had a prayer in it[inaudible]. Now going back to the workshops side. I got to be a heckler. And I thought 'Wow.'
[Speaker 1] My mother probably would have washed my mouth out with soap for some of the things I had said then. [Speaker2] What were some of the things you said then very foul, crude things. There's a little excerpt in eyes on the prize from a workshop where we, we cleanup workers are you used every foul thing that could be said derogatory and the n word was there threatening. Just, the most crude, foul, nasty stuff you could think of was said while at the same time when the the physical abuse was taking place [Speaker 2] How did it make you feel to have to say 'n-word?' [Speaker 1] I It didnt make me feel one way or another, at that point, because it was part of a workshop
and, you know. I mean the students themselves were saying it to one another. when it. All, all during this time i was really wrestling with the question of non-violence and did I think it, it could be for me the one thing solidifying in my mind and I had previously in high school and given some thought possibly going into the ministry but i really came to see that the gospel for me was becoming a gospel of non-violence and Jesus's teachings on 'The Sermon on the Mount.' You know. You have heard 'Love your neighbor,' but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you
man, that's heavy stuff. You know you don't think about that and 'eye for an eye' and 'tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you don't strike back at the person who is trying to hit you one of the passages I remember was from 'James' talking about, if you see people around you that are hungry and need clothing and shelter and you just say eat well stay warm have a good life and you don't do anything, 'You know, what good is it?' faith without works is death. So I was I was really wrestling with, if you're gonna live your faith you really better live it. And the faith we were called too was one that was on the side of social justice and the poor and righting wrongs and it was very obvious to me that segregation was wrong i had been raised in a church where parents taught me right from wrong and 'Man, what I was seeing was wrong.'
Like I said, I wanted to do something I just wasn't sure whether I could be non-violent. And finally, I don't remember if it was John or [Inaudible] said Jim, take the role of demonstrator next and see how you handle it And I had been in drama in high school and college i I had been the heckler. I knew what was going to be said and done to me. So I thought, well I can this and the comments that were made to me personally, I was able to handle without a problem there was a young lady standing in front of me who was in a number of my classes just a sweet, gal. And I don't know who started it but a couple of them made some sexual innuendos about her and me. That bothered me. I wasn't expecting that. I kind of got blindsided. And I
kind of grit my teeth a little bit and flinched my hands but I didn't do anything. And when that section of the workshop was over. I felt so good. That I hadn't lashed out verbally or physically. that the possibility was there maybe maybe i can do this. What a power. And you realized non-violence is such an incredible power because it is love at its base [Production Comments] [Production Comments] [Speaker 2] So you hear about the [Inaudible]. [Speaker 1] Well I gotta
preface at that point I started attending workshops and participating in earnest for the point that I ultimately became a demonstrator in the movie theaters being the only white guy i could get tickets and you get two tickets pass one my partner and we would try to get into the movie theaters. Over a period of time between that and sit-in's that i was involved at the same time I was elected to be a part of the central committee. We were the group that where the spokesman for the demonstrations. We were the ones that planned them planned the various activities. Made the decisions etc and it was in that capacity that John Louis brought to us one day in the middle of april or so latter part of april the information that the core was going to have this they didn't even call it a freedom ride as I recall at that point. But that they were going have
this ride through the South. Testing interstate travel and that he had applied and been accepted to go on it. so at about that time the movie theaters had integrated so we were on cloud nine there were a few test cases going where people were going down to the to the theater but were kind of in a a hiatus thinking about well you know what are we going to do next. What's next challenge that we are facing. But it was kind of lull until we heard in the papers the news that the buses the bus was burned in Anniston and the people were beaten there those that had made it Birmingham, also being beaten. And we held meetings wrestling with what should we do to support them. And, and we were talking about
maybe have a sympathy march downtown at the Greyhound station or toward trailways. Definitely wanted to send them a telegram supporting them. But just we hadn't. You know were talking about logistics again. And within a matter of of basically the next day they quit. they stopped the ride and they flew to New Orleans and we had an early morning meeting saying. You know. that can't happen. You cannot have people that use violence think that if they become violent enough you are going to fold. You know, there are things worth dieing for. You have to put your life on the line. So we determined very quickly that the ride had to be continued. But then spent alot of time with the logistics. How many people should go? What should be the make-up? of that group. How should they get there? Should they go to Birmingham or onto the next
location. Which was going to be Montgomery. We need to let Jim Farmer and Dr. King know of our intentions. We did that. They both said, 'Don't do it.' and Diane who is our secretary said it is not open for debate. We are going. And you need to be aware of it. We there were approximately two dozen of us on the central committee. Eighteen of us volunteered to go. We felt that was too many, to go and first sweep. So it was left to Diane Nash and Jim Bevel to make the decision as to who would be on that first bus. We had to come up with money for tickets. We were talking with Reverend Shuttlesworth in Birmingham. We came up with an idea that we wanted to
to alleviate hostility and violence as much as possible our idea was if he could get church members and meet us at the bus station when we arrive we would get and Carson just dissipate into the community not do any demonstrating and blushed all that last night or that day and cannot do anything until the following morning when our bus ??? worry would be going on and that's was a different in and out itself the core buses were core buses we wanted to go in regular interstate buses we did not charter buses we didn't feel that was the way to do it so reverend Charles was agreed to do that we in turn running around trying to find the money i eventually did i was one of ten that was chosen to be on that first bus. There were going to be three
females, one white female ??? and the seven finalists we had to go was a week right before finals so we had to go to the deans or schools and in many cases to our individual professors and see if we made it through this if we could take our finals later date ??? said yes which I'd appreciated and that was all happening basically during that day after the early morning meeting all that planning in coming up with dollars we were told and you know call home once you've got that you need to do some packing and it was stressed repeatedly that we could expect
any or all of three things the first would be jailed, the second would be beatings the third would be being killed and because of the severity of the possibilities the ten of us were asked to write a letter to our loved ones i'm expressing more western troops or telling them we love them whatever and so i i know i went back and did that and I didn't feel that a letter was enough my parents had provided me a wonderful childhood and a tremendous amount of love and support and everything that i had done i had not shared with them
much information about the violence that I had incuured during the demonstrations in Nashville but as the sole white person i wish the focus the primary focus of most of the violence that took place because i was disgraced the white race, I was the be-trader so i knew if anybody was probably going to get pretty well being or kill it would be me and i wanted to tell my folks how much I love them and how much i appreciated with they've done so i called them and i talked to my mother my dad had numerous strokes and corners by this time and i had sent a letter
previously just kind of alluding to what i was doing and I had been informed in no uncertain terms that i shouldn't be and that i was putting my dad's life in jeopardy and i heard the same thing from my mom when I told her what I was going to do i was kind of looking at as not being any different from telling my parents i'm going off to war you know be proud of me and i'm trying to make a better country and i was really hoping, you know, "We love you son God go with you" and i didn't get that i basically got you are killing your dad that was my mother's last comment to me you've killed your father and she hung up. And that was very hard to take.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with Jim Zwerg, 1 of 4
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Jim Zwerg was an Exchange student at Fisk University, student at Beloit College on the Nashville, Tennessee, via Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama ride. May 16-20, 1961
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Jim Zwerg, 1 of 4,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 11, 2022,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Jim Zwerg, 1 of 4.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 11, 2022. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Jim Zwerg, 1 of 4. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from