VNV Tuesday – Privilege and Allyship: A Call for Introspection 4/10/18

James Zwerg: Ally, Freedom Rider

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.

John Lewis and James Zwerg, Montgomery, 1961

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.

About DoReMI 165 Articles
Now a Michigander, by way of Ohio, Illinois, Scotland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. Gardener. Sewer. Democrat. Resister.


  1. Good morning, everybody and thanks, DoReMi for such a powerful diary this morning. I read through to the end and then, like you, I said no. I couldn’t do it. Which made me sad, too. I have been beaten before (a victim of domestic violence). I didn’t choose to be and I survived but I don’t think I could volunteer for that kind of pain again. I wish I could. I might be better as a supporter or advocate. But, who knows what we are capable of when the right situation confronts us? I’d like to think we’d do the right thing (and that’s what’s important, after all).

    Rain returning to Sacramento this afternoon with a high of 68. I only hope it stays away until after my puppy walking is done.

    • The one thing I’ve learned over the years is that most of us are capable of more than we think. That gives me hope, as well as solace. I know from experience that in the initial moments of an emergency, I’m a blithering idiot…my brain doesn’t shut down, it just starts firing off in every direction in once. Give me a few moments to catch a deep breath, and I become a machine. But an emergency is far from staring violence in the face; I can only hope that some of the “emergency” characteristics would carry over.

  2. {{{DoReMI}}} – I too know I couldn’t do it – and am ashamed. Not deliberately. Not walking into it face on knowing what is likely to be coming. I think of what little I know that Denise or Aji have lived through…I’ve lived through just enough to know they are telling the truth. They aren’t making things up for whatever reason white supremacists come up with to accuse POC of lying about what their lives have been/are like. I send them Love which doesn’t do diddly to stop blood flowing or mend a broken bone. But I’m such a coward I can’t always read all of what they write – as if my not having nightmares is somehow more important than the reality they’ve lived.

    About the best I can say for myself is I really don’t know what I’d do in an emergency. I know of the few emergencies I’ve dealt with in my life that involved others I acted appropriately to save those others – but I literally did not then know what I was doing. I didn’t remember doing it, don’t remember now – just that somehow I was on a bridge when my 2 y.o. son fell in the creek and suddenly I’m holding my scared, wet boy to my heart on the bank. (And unfortunately yelling at his older brother for letting it happen.) Just that I was in the front of the lab class demonstrating something when lab equipment on the last table malfunctioned and the table caught fire and suddenly the fire’s out, the students looking at me a bit amazed (although the only comment was “Mrs. R…, you cussed!” LOL). I don’t remember than one either. So I will give myself the minor benefit of the doubt as far as an emergency situation is concerned. But walk into it with my eyes open? No. Which makes me rather sick to my stomach – because someone will. Someone will take the hurt I can/couldn’t. Their blood will be on my hands because I couldn’t do it.

    • I understand where you’re coming from, bfitz. {{{HUGS}}}. However, just like there are the front line fighters, there also needs to be those in back who are helping with the “admin” work, if ya will. Calling in the reinforcements. Tending to the injured. Not everybody has to be an ally. We do what we can and all of it is important.

      • Diane Nash, who was one of the leaders and most highly-trained SNCC activists, didn’t ride the buses. She was the point person: the person who coordinated for places for the Riders to stay; she kept track of who was in jail and when they were released; and ensured that church leaders and pastors were kept apprised of the evolving situations. She didn’t get “left behind” due to lack of courage or because she was a woman; she was chosen to be the general of the action precisely because of her stellar reputation, her training, her contacts, and her ability to get the job done. So yes, WYGal, your point is spot-on; there’s room for many people with many roles.

    • Bfitz, these unblinking self-assessments are worth making, because acknowledging our humanity, flaws and all, is important to our growth. But I also think that most of us underestimate what we’re capable of, because we haven’t truly been tested. That’s our privilege, of course, but you have two clear examples of acting swiftly in an emergency situation, so that’s part of you too.

      As I mentioned to WYgal at the Orange, I have a post in my drafts about the training activists like Rosa Parks and John Lewis went through to get to the point of being on the front lines. The training became a part of who they were, not just a series of tactics to be used in the event of violence. And as Jim Zwerg alludes to in one of the articles, the knowledge that you were part of a community kept them strong; when one was attacked, the others were there to stand up, whether to carry away the wounded or to take the blows directed at the fallen. (I really need to pull that post out of drafts and put it into final form.)

      One of the reasons I know I won’t be a front-liner is because I don’t have the training…and I can have a big mouth which would just escalate a bad situation. I’m not even sure I have the commitment to take the training if it were readily available, because in some ways, I believe direct action is a young person’s effort. But the one thing I do know is that I’m more open to looking for/receiving training than I was in the past, and rather than feeling guilt, I’m going to take that as progress.

      • For those us who are white, just looking is progress. And oh, what privilege that shows. I had a “mini-lecture” of a sort before I participated in anti-war marches. The organizers knew a lot of folks (like me) were gonna just show up for the march, so before we started out they went over how to respond to situations ranging from being cursed at to being hauled off by the police. So knowledge, yes. Training, not really. And of course it has to be trained in. That’s the only way to change an instinctive response to the one you want for anything. (You teach as you were taught, you parent as you were parented. If you want to change that, you retrain.)

        I know there’s a whole lot of behind the scenes stuff, the support troops are usually at least 10 for every 1 on the battle line for anything, and I can/could/did do that. But if the question is whether I could have been a Freedom Rider, knowing I could and probably would get beat up at the very least and dead at the worst – no. I couldn’t do that. {{{HUGS}}} and Healing Energy. To everybody.

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