Freedom Riders

  • John Lewis and Jim Zwerg were young men who came together for a cause. They boarded a bus and headed south, armed with nothing but their idealism, courage, and belief in justice.

    When they reached Montgomery, Alabama, John and Jim met a mob armed with chains, bats, and hammers. They were both badly beaten by the mob—Jim nearly to death—simply because they had ridden together on the bus.

    John Lewis was black, and Jim Zwerg was white.

    It was 1961.

    It was 1961, and the world was a different place. It was a world that John Lewis and Jim Zwerg and hundreds of others would fight to change. The Freedom Rides were a central part of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s that fought to win equal rights for African Americans. It was a bloody and difficult battle. It was fought on one side by policemen and private citizens who used dogs, fire hoses, guns, and burning crosses. It was fought on the other side by protesters who used marches, songs, signs, and nonviolence. It was a battle the Freedom Riders helped win.

    In compelling detail, Ann Bausum relates a story that alternately chills and inspires. She captures both the black and the white perspective on the Freedom Rides and segregation, through the eyes and experiences of John Lewis and Jim Zwerg. She describes how justice ultimately emerged from hatred and discrimination in a period of American history that did indeed change the world.

    In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, many people fought for justice and equality for African Americans. They often faced hostile resistance. In May 1961 a small group of black and white passengers boarded a bus and headed south in the name of freedom.

    "When we arrived in downtown Montgomery, ...it was so quiet, it was so eerie, it was almost frightening....The bus drove into the parking deck at the station, opened the door, and the moment, the very moment that we started down the steps of the bus, this mob came out of nowhere."
    —Freedom Rider John Lewis
    interview by Ann Bausum
    recorded May 12, 2004

    "You could see baseball bats; you could see hammers; you could see pieces of chain. You knew why they were there....And you knew it was very soon going to happen. At that moment...I bowed by head, and I prayed. And I asked God to give me the strength to be nonviolent. I asked God to forgive them for whatever they might do. And I asked Him to be with me."
    —Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg
    excerpt from lecture given
    Fall 2002 at Beloit College

  • PHOTO CREDIT:
    Courtesy the Library of Congress
    Prints and Photographs Division,
    LC-USZ62-125958

    I began researching Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement in 2004 while I was completing the production work for With Courage and Cloth. After covering a 72-year time span in this history of how women won the right to vote, I enjoyed the chance to focus with Freedom Riders on a much smaller period of history. The pivotal events for this book took place during a few weeks in May of 1961. This time, instead of creating timelines that spanned decades, I constructed a chronology broken down by months and days, even hours, to help me understand the sequence of events.

    During my stay in Birmingham, Ala., I visited the site of the Trailways bus depot where Freedom Riders were attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to desegregate the station's food service and restrooms.

    The work of writing Freedom Riders, as with each of my books, starts with lots of reading. But this book called for a road trip, too. In May of 2004, during the 43rd anniversary month of the original Freedom Rides, I took a freedom ride of my own. I loaded our family van with maps, research materials, guidebooks, a camera, and recording material, then I headed from my home in Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. I stayed several days in our nation's capital, researching photo ideas at the Library of Congress, visiting exhibits about civil rights history, and interviewing one of the two featured figures in my book—U.S. Congressman John Lewis.

    Then my freedom ride began in earnest. Using old maps, published interviews, and historic accounts as a guide, I headed south along the same routes followed 43 years earlier for the Freedom Rides. Along the way I toured cities visited by the first Freedom Riders, tried to imagine what their trips were like then, and compared the views I saw with the reality met by these people decades before. I visited museums, archives, and public libraries in key cities along the route, gathering photos, newspaper clippings, and other material related to my subject of interest. I reached the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, on the same day that, 43 years before, had been witness to the racist attack that left John Lewis and Jim Zwerg beaten bloody and unconscious.

    This map from Freedom Riders summarizes the history covered in the book.

    During my trip I visited other sites from civil rights history, too, from the homes, churches, and grave of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the parks, roadways, and bridges in Alabama where police clashed with those who peacefully protested for their civil rights. In addition I detoured off of my Freedom Ride route to tour Pike County, Alabama (where John Lewis was born and raised), Memphis, Tennessee (home of the National Civil Rights Museum), and Nashville, Tennessee (starting point for the shared Freedom Ride of John Lewis and Jim Zwerg).

    Two weeks and 4,000 miles later I returned to Wisconsin with a far richer understanding of the history and region that were to be the subject of my book. As extensive as this trip had been, however, my travels were not yet over. I made three other trips on behalf of Freedom Riders. Each of these helped me better understand the other individual featured in my book—Jim Zwerg. On two occasions I visited Appleton, Wisconsin, his hometown. I traveled to his current home in Tucson, Arizona, too, and spent three days interviewing him about his personal history and experiences during the civil rights movement. Collecting this oral history, face-to-face with this quiet figure from history, was another highlight of the research process for Freedom Riders.

  • I collected more than 200 pages of lecture and interview transcripts during the researching of Freedom Riders. Only a fraction of this material made it into the final text of my book. Here are some extended excerpts from the "cutting room floor."

    From a speech, Jim Zwerg recalls his Freedom Ride to Birmingham on May 17, 1961 and his stay in the Birmingham jail:

    "Well, we had a very nice ride all the way to Birmingham city limits. And at the Birmingham city limits, we got stopped. . . .And this very large gentleman with a hat, glasses gets on the bus: Bull Connor. If you have read anything about civil rights activities in Birmingham, you know the name, Bull Connor.

    "'Y'all got some Freedom Riders on here from Nashville?' The bus driver had a hint that maybe Paul and I [seated together, one black, one white] were part of that. [laughter] 'Those two!' Old Bull comes down the aisle, turns to Paul, 'Now, boy, you get out of that seat. Y'all c'mon now. Get out of there.' And Paul said, 'I'm very comfortable here. Why do I need to get up?' 'You're under arrest. All right, boy, get out the way. Let him up.' I said, 'I'm very comfortable here.' 'You're under arrest, too.' [laughter]

    "....Well, then they took us down to the Birmingham jail and booked us and fingerprinted us, and led him off to his segregated cage. . . .And they walked me in through the group of cages where there were felons and others, into the white drunk transit. And announced with great flair, and please, you know this is the way they announced it, 'Here's that nigger lovin' Freedom Rider.' Now, they're announcing this as I am walking into a cell filled with more than two dozen Southern white gentlemen in various stages of inebriation. Not a soul lifted a hand toward me. They did pull over and say, 'Boy, you a damn fool. What you doin'?'

    "And I started talking with them. And quite honestly, I don't remember how we finally evolved to the point. . . .But we were talking all the while and it came out, in the course of the conversation, I discovered that of all the white drunks in that drunk transit, there was not one Southern Baptist, not one! There were Methodists, a lot of Catholics, but not one Southern Baptist. Kind of the same little 'Have you ever thought about that? Don't you think there are a few Southern Baptists that go out and imbibe once in a while? Don't they ever get arrested?' And a couple of these guys are starting to go, 'Yeah, that's bad.' 'No, hey, that's not fair. How come we only get arrested? How come they don't go to jail?' 'That's what I'm talking about, guys. That's kind of the same thing I'm talking about.' And they were beginning to literally comprehend.

    "Well, just about that time, it was getting to be the late afternoon, I'm hearing music, singing from the other side of the jail. Music is how we communicated in jail. You know, the fellows and gals were segregated always; whites and blacks were segregated. So, I'm hearing these other eight students singing at the top of their lungs, phew, you know, I know they're great. And I'm looking around, saying, 'How is Zwergie ever gonna communicate with these guys over there and let 'em know I'm okay?'

    "Keep in mind there is a stanza of 'Keep Your Eyes on the Prize' that goes, [singing] 'Paul and Silas, bound in jail, got no money for to go their bail. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.' I did that for 'em, and they said, 'We like that.' [laughter] And I taught them, just that one stanza. Didn't explain the song, any of that [increased laughter]. And I had 20 some odd white Southerners in various stages of inebriation-never challenged the Mormon Tabernacle Choir-but we were singing, 'Eyes on the Prize.' And I felt so good! They're gonna' know I'm okay.

    "And it wasn't 'till after this was all over, I realized that the only one who heard me was Paul because the rest had been then taken out and dumped at midnight on the border of Tennessee and Alabama."
    —Jim Zwerg
    excerpt from lecture given
    Fall 2002 at Beloit College

    From an interview, John Lewis picks up the story of events in Birmingham and beyond, May 17-19, 1961:

    "And Police Commissioner Bull Connor boarded the bus and told Jim Zwerg and Paul Brooks to move. And they declined to move. And they were placed under arrest, and then went to jail. . . .And then he said, 'I'm going to take you all and place you in protective custody.' And he took us all to the city jail. So we stayed in jail that Wednesday night, all day Thursday, and Thursday night. We went on a hunger strike. We hadn't had anything to eat since Wednesday morning or maybe Tuesday night for most of us. In the meantime we didn't know what had happened to Jim Zwerg and Paul Brooks.

    "We were taken from the city jail by Mr. Conner, and some other police officials. They had one or two reporters from the Birmingham Post or the Birmingham News and they dropped us off at the Alabama and Tennessee state line and said, in effect, you can make it back to Nashville best that we could. At Ardmore, Alabama. They left us. And we were terrified. This is Klan territory. We didn't know what was going to happen. And in the meantime we had no idea what had happened to Jim, Paul, or Selyn because during those days in Alabama, like most of the South, the jails were segregated, and so there was very little communication.

    "So we started walking across the railroad tracks. And one of the black students, a male from Tennessee State University, said something like, 'There must be some colored people around here some place.' And we walked and walked and came up on this old house. It was leaning and about to fall down. And we knocked on the door.

    "And an elderly black man came to the door and we said, 'We're the Freedom Riders, please let us in, let us in, we are in trouble.' So the man closed the door, and we knocked and knocked and he came back and his wife came, and she realized who we were. She begged her husband [inaudible] and she said, 'Please let them in, let them in.' And they took us in and took us to a back room and told us to be quiet. And we were quiet just like they told us.

    "And they had a telephone [inaudible]. We made a call to Nashville and talked to Diane Nash who was coordinating the Freedom Rides. She had been the coordinator of the student movement in Nashville. And we wanted to know from Diane what had happened to Selyn and Jim and Paul. And she told us that Paul and Jim had gone to trial and the jury dropped the charges against them, but they were still in Birmingham. And that Selyn McCollum's father flew down from Buffalo to pick her up and got her out of jail. And she went back home [inaudible]. But she told us also that 11 other packages had been shipped by other means to pick up where we had left off. She meant that 11 other students had left by train. But we felt at the time, and rightly so, that our telephone lines were all tapped and the local police and the FBI and everybody was cooperating with each other [inaudible].

    "But she wanted to know from us—if we wanted to go back to Birmingham, she would send a car to pick us up. And we told her, yes, we wanted to go back. I don't think there was any reservation, any doubt on the part of any of the students. We wanted to go back and pick up the ride.

    "And she sent a young man by the name of Leo Lillard, and he probably was 17 or 18 years old, 18 years old or younger. And today I don't even understand how this young man jumped in this car, drove all the way back, picked us up, drove us back to Birmingham."
    —John Lewis
    recalled in an interview with Ann Bausum
    May 2004

    From an interview, Jim Zwerg recalls the role of humor and storytelling in the civil rights movement:

    "One of the stories that went around on the Freedom Rides was....you have to picture that the bus driver is busy checking his tickets and so forth, heading around, working....And as he looks up, he realizes that there is this black man sitting right behind him. And this is not a small black man. This is a big, 6-6, 260-type black man.

    "And he turns and says, [in a Southern drawl] 'Hey, boy, you can't sit there. You all get on to the back of the bus where you belong, now. Go on, now.'

    "And a lot of times when you tell it, especially if one of the black kids was telling it, you know, they'd slowly get up out of the seat—the one to tell this is Hank Thomas, 'cause he's about that size—He gets out of his seat and he looks down at the bus driver and he takes him by the scruff of the neck and he lifts him up and looks him right in the eye and says, 'Son, you've already made two mistakes. One, I ain't no boy, and, two, I ain't one of them nonviolent Negroes.' Whoo!"
    —Jim Zwerg
    recalled in an interview with Ann Bausum
    September, 2004

  • Here are some suggested activities and points of discussion that could be used in conjunction with the reading of Freedom Riders.

    In the classroom—compare and contrast.  The opening chapters of Freedom Riders present the early histories of John Lewis ("Black America") and Jim Zwerg ("White America"). Born within months of one another, these men could not have lived more different childhoods. Yet each young man shared common experiences, too. Readers of these opening chapters should be able to find dozens of points of comparison between the histories of John Lewis and Jim Zwerg—from the condition of their homes and schools, to the role of religion in their lives, to the first moment when each one stood up for equality.

    In the classroom—parting letters.  In Chapter Five ("Blood Brothers," page 44) readers learn how 10 college students prepared to embark on a Freedom Ride that might lead to their deaths. Many wrote parting letters that would be sent to their parents if their trip proved fatal. No such letters ever had to be sent, but imagine the seriousness of their writing, what might have been written, and how these words might have been received. What would readers of Freedom Riders write under similar circumstances? How would their letters be received by their parents?

    In the classroom—parental consent, parental approval.  John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, and their friends in the Nashville Student Movement balanced their personal commitment to the cause of nonviolent protest against varying amounts of support from their families. Readers learn about parental disapproval (page 32), disobeyed instructions (page 44), and strained relationships between parents and young adults (pages 59-60). Were the students justified in disobeying their parents? When do parents lose their say in what their children can do? How would readers of Freedom Riders react in similar situations? How would their parents?

    In the classroom—songs of the civil rights movement.  Music was an indispensable tool of the civil rights movement. It inspired, gave courage, relieved tension, and recorded moments of oral history from the movement. Do readers of Freedom Riders recognize any of the songs quoted in the book? What are other examples of songs that protest or inspire? Share recordings of music from the civil rights movement and other periods of social protest.

    In the classroom—causes.  John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, and thousands of other people put their lives on the line for the Freedom Rides and other events of nonviolent protest during the civil rights movement. What causes might attract such sacrifice today? Does a commitment to nonviolence play a role in contemporary protest? How can readers of Freedom Riders respond to the calls for activism and civic involvement made by both John Lewis and Jim Zwerg in their forewords that accompany this book? I'd love to hear examples of new involvement.

  • Freedom Ride Journeys:
    An Author's Story of Research and History

    Available as a program for children, teens, or adults
    by Ann Bausum

    Several journeys played a part in Freedom Riders. The first, and most obvious ones are, of course, the series of Freedom Rides during 1961 that serve as the subject for the book. During this presentation I'll use illustrations (including ones not published in Freedom Riders) to recap this history.

    At the same time I'll discuss other journeys, including the extensive on-site research that went into the writing of the book, particularly my 4,000-mile journey along the routes of the Freedom Rides. I'll share contemporary views of sites visited during these travels and talk about meeting and interviewing Congressman John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, the Freedom Riders featured in my book. Along the way children will learn not just about the history of the Freedom Rides but about the research process that leads to a book like Freedom Riders. Each presentation is targeted to best serve the grade level of the audience.

    Length: 45 minutes for program, 10-15 minutes for questions.

    Technical requirements: LCD projector and projection screen.

    Audience feedback on this program:

    "Ann Bausum's slide show presentation about the civil rights movement and her book Freedom Riders absolutely wowed my students, but it was Ann herself (her knowledge, her accessibility) that left the greatest impression. My kids are still talking about her [months later]! Ann is so easy to work with. She was cheerful even with a broken collar bone! Ann Bausum is awesome!"
    —Middle school librarian, Tennessee

    "One of [our] students in writing about attending your program noted: 'This has changed my life.' Evidently she had thought about the connection between faith and social justice, but needed the faces of John Lewis and Jim Zwerg to make it somehow 'real.' You've touched another life."
    —College history professor, Tennessee

    "Excellent reminder of how far we've come and how far we have yet to go....Very interesting and well presented....Ann is an inspiring speaker."
    —Selected evaluation comments from a technical college audience, Wisconsin

    "Most people think nonfiction books are boring. I agreed, until I met Ms. Bausum....She makes the characters live....[She made] you become interested in something like revising....By the end of the discussion, I was fully drawn in to the 1960s....It's amazing that a few words can make you interested in a decade of events."
    —Middle school student, Tennessee

  • Armed with Nonviolence:
    Stories from the Fight for Human Rights

    A program for teens and adults
    by Ann Bausum

    This program draws from Marching to the Mountaintop, Freedom Riders and With Courage and Cloth to show parallel uses of nonviolent resistance in the fight for human rights. During the 1910s women picketed the White House and went to jail in their quest for the right to vote. Fifty years later participants in the Civil Rights Movement used nonviolent protests to break down the barriers of segregation. Using stories from these campaigns and quotes from the times, I show how qualities like courage, ingenuity, camaraderie, and the influence of the news media have made the difference in winning fights for human rights. The program includes examples of how music played a part in each of the featured struggles, as well.

    Length: 50 minutes, 10-15 minutes for questions.

    Technical requirements: LCD projector and projection screen.

    Audience feedback on this program:

    "The topic [Armed with Nonviolence] was of interest to all age groups. Anyone old enough to go to school and read would be able to comprehend what Ann was explaining. It was not "too simple," [but] just right. You caught and held people's attention! Your connections and ways of comparing the events was fantastic. Ann is a gracious and humble author. She was easy to work with and made it easy to host her program."
    —Public school librarian and conference program chair, Wisconsin

  • "In another excellent work of nonfiction, the author...covers a civil rights topic less frequently addressed....Eschewing a general overview of the 1961 Freedom Rides for specific, personal histories of real participants in the dangerous bus integration protests, Bausum focuses on two college students from strikingly different backgrounds....Incisively illustrated with archival photos...this moving biographical diptych prompts careful thinking about race...and delivers a galvanizing call to action."
    Booklist, starred review
    February 1, 2006

    "Remarkable book....Bausum's narrative style, fresh, engrossing, and at times heart-stopping, brings the story of the turbulent and often violent dismantling of segregated travel alive in vivid detail. The language, presentation of material, and pacing will draw readers in and keep them captivated....A definite first purchase."
    School Library Journal, starred review
    May, 2006

    "Bausum brings to life the era's inequalities....Attractively designed and carefully focused, the book is enlivened with well-chosen historical photos....Equally admirable back matter....This photo-essay would make an excellent accompaniment for teaching about a pivotal event in the 1960s."
    Horn Book Magazine
    May/June issue

    "This superb book—meticulously researched and packed with photos—focuses on the Rides, and the fear, loathing and violence that attended them."
    The Washington Post
    January 29, 2006

    "This title will be a first choice for middle-school civil rights collections."
    Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
    May 2006

    "Bausum takes readers on a vivid, unforgettable journey into the past. The Freedom Riders' commitment and passion for justice is palpable, as is the infuriation of those they challenged....Compelling look at one facet of the civil rights movement."
    Wisconsin State Journal
    October 3, 2006

  • Sibert Honor Book
    Presented by the American Library Association

    Top of the List, Booklist 2006 Editors' Choice
    Chosen as the best youth nonfiction book of 2006 by the editors of Booklist, trade magazine of the American Library Association

    2006 Notable Children's Book
    American Library Association

    Best Books for Young Adults 2006
    American Library Association

    Orbis Pictus Awards
    Recommended title

    Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Award
    Wisconsin Library Association

    2009 Garden State Book Awards
    New Jersey Teen Choice for Best Nonfiction

    2007 Books for the Teen Age
    New York Public Library

    Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts
    National Council of Teachers of English

    Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People
    National Council for the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council

    Choices 2007
    Cooperative Children's Book Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Blue Ribbon List
    Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

    2003 Anna Cross Giblin Nonfiction Research Work-in-Progress Grant
    presented by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This grant helped fund my two-week, 4,000-mile journey along the trail of the Freedom Rides during the 43rd anniversary of the rides.

  • African American Odyssey

    Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

    Civil Rights Memorial

    Congressman John Lewis

    Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement

    Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site

    The Nashville Room

    National Civil Rights Museum

    Nashville Tennessean
    Series on Nashville Civil Rights History: "Because of you"

    Civil Rights Chronicle—The African-American Struggle for Freedom by Clayborne Carson (consultant), Legacy Publishing, Lincolnwood, Ill., 2003.

    The Civil Rights Movement—A Photographic History, 1954-68 by Steven Kasher, Abbeville Press (1996). Available in hardcover and paperback.

    Everybody Says Freedom—A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures by Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, Norton, 1989.

    Eyes on the Prize, America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Blackstone Productions, PBS-TV, 1987.

    Freedom Riders—1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault, Oxford University Press, 2006.

    I'm Gonna Let It Shine—A Gathering of Voices for Freedom by Round River Records, 1990.

    Walking with the Wind by John Lewis, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998.

    We Shall Overcome by Herb Boyd, Sourcebooks, Naperville, Ill., 2004.

  • •  Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement

    •  Published 2006

    •  National Geographic Society

    •  80 pages, hardcover

    •  $18.95

    •  59 photos, map, partial roster of riders, chronology, resource guide, research notes, citations, bibliography, index

    •  ISBN 0-7922-4173-8

    •  Audio edition available from Recorded Books