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Historic journey with Freedom Riders
Vanderbilt students take trip to Montgomery with group that defied segregation

By Lucas L. Johnson II
Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Jim Zwerg didn’t plan to join the civil rights movement.

But when he arrived on the campus of Fisk University in Nashville nearly 50 years ago, the white exchange student from Wisconsin changed his mind after seeing how his black roommate was mistreated.

“When he would sit at a table, the white people would get up and move. I hated seeing that. And I wanted to do something about it,” he said.

Zwerg joined a group of students who become known as the Freedom Riders, and together they risked their lives to draw attention to the injustice of segregated transportation in the Deep South.

This past weekend, Vanderbilt University gave about 100 college students a chance to retrace the historic 1961 journey while talking with Zwerg and some of the other Freedom Riders.

They took a bus Saturday from Nashville to Montgomery and then on to Birmingham. The trip also includes panel discussions and a visit Sunday to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Kristen Vandenbossche, one of several white students on the trip, said the Freedom Riders have inspired her.

“I think once we get back to school, it’s our job to find where things are flawed and create dialogue to change it,” said Vandenbossche, a 21-year-old neuroscience major at Vanderbilt.

During the weekend bus rides, the Freedom Riders talked to the students about the dangers of the trip, including the vicious mob in Montgomery that beat two Freedom Riders, including Zwerg, nearly to death.

Zwerg said the violence only drew them closer because they believed what they were doing would create a change. He and other Freedom Riders urged students today to adopt the same passion.

“Look for issues that you can be a part of,” Zwerg said. “I don’t believe everyone has to be in a major event to make a difference.”

The Freedom Riders started as a small group of 15 volunteers in 1961, but they swelled to a movement of more than 400 during their protests in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia over that year. The black and white volunteers sat together on buses, trains and planes, and staged sit-ins at segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels.

They signed wills, anticipating possible death when they faced the mobs wielding hammers, bats, pipes and knives. They also received training in nonviolent protest techniques.

Lucius Outlaw Jr., associate professor of undergraduate education at Vanderbilt, said students today should realize the Freedom Riders of 1961 took a stand that any of them could make.

“They were ordinary human beings who made extraordinarily courageous decisions,” said Outlaw.

In keeping with the riders’ principles, the Rev. James Lawson encouraged students to practice nonviolence. No matter how they were treated during their demonstration, Lawson said, the Freedom Riders never fought back.

“Nonviolence can give you enormous power if used in the right way,” said Lawson, who trained the riders in nonviolent protest. “It can make a difference for our families, our communities, our nation.”

Bernard Lafayette, who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King and co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, agreed. “We are very much dependent on you to help fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream.”

Angela Fisher, one of the overseers at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, said it’s important for young people to know what happened in the past but also to know that the struggle continues.

“I’m sure the Freedom Riders ignited a fire in these students,” she said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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