The singing hushed as the Greyhound rolled passed a line of men, perhaps 50 or more, in white pointed hoods and white linen garments. They held torches and bats and metal rods as thick round as tree limbs. All heads on the bus turned to keep their eyes locked on what they were seeing. It was the omen of what to expect when they got to Birmingham. It was their final warning.
Five of the students had participated in the first Freedom Ride. It left D.C. two weeks prior. There were 13 riders on two busses that day. When the first one arrived at a stop in Alabama, a mob was waiting for them. They never even got off the bus. It flew by the stop and down the highway with the white folks trailing after them like a pack of rabid dogs. The bus broke down. Whether it was from the speed they were traveling or from the onslaught of things shot and thrown at it at the station, they couldn’t be sure. They jumped out and ran and ran. Even from a great distance they could see the blaze that was the bus there were riding on, and it was a thing of nightmares. When the second bus arrived in Alabama, eight white men boarded before anyone had the chance to get off and beat the coloreds sitting in the front seats, forcing them to the back of the bus. No one knew at the time that the Klan had paid for an uninterrupted 15 minutes alone with the occupants of the bus. There were police they didn’t agree with that, but they were forced to shut up, stand down and, of course, watch. The beatings were bad, real bad that day. Still, there were those wanted to continue on to their final destination, to Montgomery, but no bus was willing to take them.
On today’s Freedom Ride, James sat in the middle of the bus, sprawled out on the seats sideways. Behind him were two white girls and three colored. Their talking and singing buzzed in his ears. In the front seats sat one colored girl and five colored guys immersed in conversation that brought laughter every once in awhile. Staying distracted helped. He was the only white guy, but there was nothing notable or awkward about that. It just was. James had his head facing downward. The pen in his right hand moved quickly across the paper as he wrote out the letter.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Our last phone call was extremely disappointing. It was hurtful as well. I am not doing this to either of you. I thought of all people you both would understand what it is I feel compelled to do. After all, was it not you who taught me right from wrong. This I see as wrong, and I’m sure in your hearts you do as well. Civil rights belong to all of us regardless of skin color. We will keep riding these buses until we can ride anyplace in the south as united Americans with united rights. Proverbs 31:8, Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.
My belief in this cause is strong, my faith even stronger. Thank you for instilling righteous qualities in me.
P.S. We have a police escort, so you should not worry.
I love you, mom, dad, very much. James
He folded the paper and put it in the envelope labeled: To be read by Mr. and Mrs. Zwerg in the unfortunate event of their son, James Zwerg, death. He gave the envelope to the bus driver, who glanced quickly at the front of it, nodded, and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket.
James did not mention to his parents that the escort was not allowed to venture into the Montgomery city limits.
Twenty minutes later, the bus pulled into the station, squeaked and hissed to a stop. There was a sea of people there waiting for their arrival, literally thousands, rioters, klansman, onlookers, everything but a police presence. James stood, grabbed his suitcase, and moved towards the door. The bus driver grabbed his elbow.
“Son, you don’t want to go out there.”
The other students stood and moved behind James. He took courage from that.
Two men in overalls and snake smiles were standing near the door, waiting for it to open, baseball bats slamming into their palms in a “get ready” posture.
The swoosh-thwop of the door sliding open was the last comforting sound he heard, other than his own words whispered to God’s ear. “The LORD is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?“
A voice behind him cracked, “Please, don’t let me die today.”
James’ feet never touched the bottom step. He was picked up and thrown. A crowd swarmed around him chanting “Nigger lover! Kill the nigger lover!” Someone had grabbed his suitcase and was pounding it like a hammer about his body. He was kicked and spit on. He did not, would not take up a hand against these people. That was what they wanted. That was not what he stood for. That was not who he was. One man grabbed both his ears and put James’ head between the man’s own knees, so others could slap and punch his face, knocking out teeth, breaking bones. That was when he lost consciousness. The crowd flung him aside and went for the rest of the Freedom Riders, throwing them over walls onto parked cars, smashing them with their own luggage, beating them with pipes, bats, fists. Everyone cheering. Everyone jeering. Everyone out of control. They turned on the journalists next, bloodying faces, bruising bodies, breaking cameras. It was ten minutes before the police arrived, and even then it was a half-hearted attempt on their part to calm the situation. No one from the bus was allowed to leave, no ambulances were available until the crowd could be dispersed.
James’ parents sat huddled together on the sofa watching the news. The call from the hospital came hours later. James’ father grabbed at his chest when the phone rang. His mother thought of her last words to James before he’d left, after she’d begged him not to go, right before she slammed the phone down in frustration, “You just killed your father, James.” It would be those words that would haunt James, cause his mother’s nervous breakdown, and shackle them both for the rest of their lives.