/ Modified may 17, 2011 2:23 p.m.

Web Feature: "A Mountaintop Experience"

Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg tells his story of struggle and sacrifice for civil rights

In 1961, 15 young men and women boarded a bus in Nashville, Tennessee, in hopes of igniting change. Their ride into Birmingham, Alabama would defy the South's Jim Crow laws and continue the efforts of earlier Freedom Riders.

Among the riders was Jim Zwerg, a 21-year-old white man from Wisconsin whose friendship with a black roommate led him into the civil rights movement.

Growing up in a "lily-white" town, Zwerg had never witnessed or experienced racism until he saw the treatment his friend endured. He applied for an exchange program to predominantly black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and once there immediately became active in sit-ins, protests and other nonviolent demonstrations. When brutal attacks on the first Freedom Riders cut short their symbolic journey, Zwerg signed up for the very next ride.

As one of only two white riders on the bus, Zwerg was targeted with particular ferocity when the Nashville Freedom Riders rolled into Montgomery, Alabama. During a riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station, Zwerg sustained a beating that nearly took his life. But later that evening, as reporters interviewed him in his hospital bed, he remained resolute.

"We're willing to accept death" to bring down segregation, he told them. His commitment inspired young people across the nation.

Watch Zwerg's hospital interview

Zwerg survived his injuries and eventually settled in Tucson, where he served for several years in the ministry. He spoke with Arizona Public Media producer Tom Kleespie on April 26, 2011. Click to watch the full interview:

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