Commentary: Lessons from the Freedom Riders

The Miami HeraldMay 17, 2011 

“Faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.” – James 2:17

MONTGOMERY – The names slide down the wall like raindrops on a window.

The device is, as someone observes, fairly simple – little more than a glorified screen saver, really. But the effect is anything but simple. The effect is…ennobling.

The wall is in a darkened room at the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is black, electronic , three times a man’s height, and hundreds of names cascade slowly down: Laura S. Walker, Lataya Flowers, Connie Hauser, Janice Wiley, Sam Ewing, William E. Helton, Charles Jenks, Julian Bond, Robert J. Bompiedi… You can put your own name on the list simply by signing a pledge of tolerance on a nearby touchscreen . When James Zwerg enters the room I ask if he will allow me to add his name and he agrees. I type the necessary information and seconds later, his name flashes upon the wall.

He stands watching for a few moments, then turns to walk away. “When you go through something like this,” he says, “and see all those things, you say, ‘Ah, geez, is this still going on?’ Then you see something like this or you see those kids and it gives you a lot of hope.”

By “all those things” he means a presentation SPLC spokesman Mark Potok gave moments ago to “those kids,” the 2011 Student Freedom Riders, 40 college students who have been traveling the South tracing the 1961 route of the original Riders. Potok’s talk might be called a “State of Hate” address, detailing the alarming growth and mutation of the bias movement over the last decade: groups that exist to hate the blacks, hate the gays, hate the Jews, hate the immigrants, hate the Muslims, hate.

If you know the name James Zwerg, it is likely in connection with one of several iconic images taken after a white mob attacked Freedom Riders at the Greyhound Station here. In one, he is the dazed young white guy leaning unsteadily against a wall as blood drips from his chin.

And when he meets with the kids an hour or so later at the old bus station where he was attacked, you might expect that he is there to lay out for them the geography of the assault, to say, I was standing over here, the Klan over there.

But Zwerg is not interested in doing that. Instead, he wants to talk about the discipline that allowed him and his fellow Freedom Riders to willingly accept that punishment. Sitting on a chair before the students in the old bus station –now converted to a small museum – he delivers what amounts to a treatise on the tenets of nonviolent protest as developed by Martin Luther King and followed by Zwerg and other disciples.

To read the complete column, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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