I’ve been grappling with the issues of privilege and effective allyship lately. Some of this has been prompted by my reading about the Movement; some of it by the Parkland students; and some of it by a survey I recently had to complete for an organization that asked, “Are you willing to engage in civil disobedience?” After some reflection, I realized my truly honest answer to the question was, “no” and that saddened me about myself. This post isn’t going to focus on my personal efforts to reconcile my ideals and my actions; it instead is going to highlight the actions of one ally as a means to encourage personal reflection and introspection.
What is an ally?
There’s a lot of discussion about what an ally is or is not. It’s even harder to define as the word gets carelessly tossed around by people who are not marginalized. The best definition of an ally comes from Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist) in her article for Marie Claire, “On Making Black Lives Matter.” In it, she notes:
Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.
Source: Guide to Allyship
Jim Zwerg was raised in a middle-class family in Appleton, WI. He grew up in a family that was largely unaware of race as an issue; while the family did not discuss race, there was a strong ethos of fairness and and a general belief that all were created equal. When Zwerg attended Beloit College, his roommate was black, and it wasn’t until he saw how others treated his roommate when they went out together that he started seeing prejudice and racism. He made the decision to attend Fisk University for one semester as an exchange student; Fisk is an HBCU in Nashville, TN, where Zwerg’s whiteness would make him a minority. Almost immediately upon starting at Fisk, he joined SNCC, and he met John Lewis, as well as students who had been attending non-violence workshops given by James Lawson. He was impressed by their commitment and their deep faith and began attending the workshops. Initially, he viewed this as an extension of his study of sociology; an intellectual process in understanding how he would react if treated as a minority. But as the workshops continued, he began to embrace non-violence as an expression of Christian love, rather than as a mere tactic.
Why allies are necessary.
Anyone has the capability to be an ally. An ally recognizes that though they are not a member of a marginalized group(s) they support, they make a concerted effort to better understand the struggle.
Because an ally might have more privilege (and recognizes said privilege), they are powerful voices alongside marginalized ones.
Source: Guide to Allyship
By February 1961, only a month after arriving at Fisk and attending the workshops, Zwerg was deemed ready to participate in a direct action. Because movie theaters were segregated in Nashville, he was to go to the ticket booth, buy two tickets, and then give one of the tickets to his black partner in the action and ask him to join him at the movie. Through the study of previous actions, it was generally known that any violence would follow a pattern: first directed at the white male, then the black male, followed by white female and black female. As Zwerg began to enter the theater, he was hit with a monkey wrench and knocked unconscious. It was the first time for him but would not be the last.
Freedom Rides begin (May 1961)
Organized by CORE, the Freedom Rides were intended to see if Southern states were complying with a recent Supreme Court ruling which struck down segregation on interstate transportation. The goal was to take buses from Washington, DC to New Orleans. In Anniston, AL, one of the two initial buses was attacked and firebombed (the video above is about this ride). After the attack, and with no assurance from AL officials that attacks would be stopped, the organizers decided to suspend the rides, and the riders were flown into New Orleans. However, Diane Nash and other SNCC organizers were deeply concerned that this action would be viewed as a victory by the white supremacists, so they organized the cadre of Nashville activists to step in as replacement riders.
Instead of chartering buses, they instead decided to purchase tickets on regular buses. Jim Zwerg was one of the 12 volunteers selected. When the bus arrived on the outskirts of Birmingham, Zwerg and Paul Brooks, his black seat companion, were arrested after refusing to move to the back of the bus. Zwerg spent 2 ½ days in the Birmingham jail before being released and meeting up with the group, ready to continue on to Montgomery.
The work of allyship is hard, ongoing, and has consequences.
As their bus approached Montgomery, the riders became aware that the protective convoy that had finally been arranged had disappeared. The press had been blocked from approaching the bus station by a gathering mob, and reporters on the bus had their equipment destroyed as the disembarked. After the reporters, Jim Zwerg was the first off:
In “Parting the Waters,” Taylor Branch wrote that the mob had swelled to 3,000 people and described what happened to Zwerg: “One of the men grabbed Zwerg’s suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground, and when he was dazed beyond resistance, one man pinned Zwerg’s head between his knees so that the others could take turns hitting him.” James Zwerg says he never felt as alive as he did when he was a Freedom Rider. Yet in the midst of that savagery, Zwerg says he had the most beautiful experience in his life. “I bowed my head,” he says. “I asked God to give me the strength to remain nonviolent and to forgive the people for what they might do. It was very brief, but in that instant, I felt an overwhelming presence. I don’t know how else to describe it. A peace came over me. I knew that no matter what happened to me, it was going to be OK. Whether I lived or whether I died, I felt this incredible calm.”
Jim Zwerg, The Freedom Rider from Appleton
In Zwerg’s own words:
Traditionally a white man got picked out for the violence first. That gave the rest of the folks a chance to get away. I was told that several tried to get into the bus terminal. I was knocked to the ground. I remember being kicked in the spine and hearing my back crack, and the pain. I fell on my back and a foot came down on my face. The next thing I remember is waking up in the back of a vehicle and John Lewis handing me a rag to wipe my face. I passed out again and when I woke up I was in another moving vehicle with some very southern-sounding whites. I figured I’m off to get lynched. I had no idea who they were. Again, I went unconscious and I woke up in the hospital. I was informed that I had been unconscious for a day and a half. One of the nurses told me that another little crowd were going to try and lynch me. They had come within a half block of the hospital. She said that she knocked me out in case they did make it, so that I would not be aware of what was happening. I mean, those pictures that appeared in the magazines, the interview… I don’t remember them at all.
Interview with Jim Zwerg
Allyship has costs.
Jim Zwerg’s allyship did not come without cost. His injuries included broken and lost teeth, and broken vertebrae in his back. He returned to Beloit after his semester at Fisk was completed, and he suffered from depression and guilt which he assuaged with heavy drinking. His relationship with his parents, once close, was irreparably altered by his activism. He was torn about not returning to the Freedom Rides, as well as the awareness that his role in the Movement had received so much press attention solely because he was white. It was at the urging of Dr. King that instead of continuing as a Freedom Rider, he went to seminary after graduation. He served as a pastor in the UCC denomination for ten years, but feeling discouraged by church politics , he eventually left the pastorate. He held various other jobs in a wide range of fields until he retired in 1999.
He says he attended a reunion at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Museum in Alabama. During a ceremony, Zwerg was walking with a crowd of Freedom Rider colleagues when he saw the famous pictures of his battered face in a video and displayed on the museum wall. “I looked at it, and what it brings back to me more than anything else is that I got so much notoriety because I was white,” he says. “I looked at that picture and I thought of all the people that never get their names in a book, never get interviewed but literally had given their lives. Who the hell am I to have my picture up there?” He was suddenly flooded with guilt. He started bawling during the ceremony as startled people looked on. Then another Freedom Rider veteran, a strapping black man named Jim Davis, walked over to Zwerg.
Zwerg’s voice trembles with emotion as he recalls what Davis said. “He said, ‘Jim, you don’t realize that it was your words from that hospital bed that were the call to arms for the rest of us.” And then, as Davis wrapped his big arms around Zwerg in front of the startled crowd, the two men cried together.
Jim Zwerg, The Freedom Rider from Appleton
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” vs “costly grace.” In a Christian context, he writes:
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price, to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
With that on my mind, I have to wonder if there isn’t cheap allyship and costly allyship, and if so, is cheap allyship even allyship at all? Does it have any value, or is it just a mask to hide behind? (I recognize that these are deeply personal questions, so I’m not necessarily looking for comments.) Ultimately, allyship is a process, not an endpoint, and these sorts of questions may be helpful in growing towards more effective, more meaningful allyship.