The costs of Honor
May 18, 2011 7:00 AM   Subscribe

"It was your words, Jim, that were a call to arms for the rest of us." The story behind an iconic photo of the civil rights movement.
posted by pjern (35 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
oh man, i cried at the end. That kind of stuff kills me every time.
posted by empath at 7:14 AM on May 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Powerful stuff.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:16 AM on May 18, 2011


A couple of nights ago, PBS showed a documentary about the Freedom Riders. Really powerful movie.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 7:17 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm all teary-eyed now too.

It's completely shocking to me that that happened only 50 years ago.
posted by desjardins at 7:19 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the things I found interesting in this story was the juxtaposition of the mystical-religious experiences during the beatings followed by the considerable silence of God he felt in his life later. I have has the same qualititatve experience myself. When you are a person of faith, and have known an experience like that, particularly if it radically changed your life's trajectory and sense of self, it is positively disorienting when the feelings leave you. I'm sure it is the same for all people, but speaking as a christian, the story about life after the freedom rides was maybe the most interesting part for me personally.
posted by scunning at 7:20 AM on May 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Hmm. scunning, I wonder if that's anything like people in long-term relationships feel, where the very beginning is all limmerance and stardust and hearts-and-flowers and such, but then the rest of your life it's mostly a warm glow of companionship and only flashes of the fluttery stardust feeling?

As for Zwerg: may he at least be granted peace. It sounds like there are still some things he's really wrestling with (but good God, how could there not be).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:23 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's a lot easier these days.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:24 AM on May 18, 2011


I'd really be interested in hearing an interview from the mob members. How do they integrate that kind of violent action, so clearly now (and then) on the wrong side of history, with the rest of their lives?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:31 AM on May 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Thanks to a ask.mefi recommendation, I've been reading Halberstam's The Children on this topic. Amazing book. Really impressive people. It's startling how little of this I learned in school in the U.S. Pretty much none, when you come right down to it. I screwed up my DVR and missed the documentary, so I'm very glad it's streamable.

scunning, Halberstam explores that disorientation quite a bit, but particularly in the story of Curtis Murphy who bowed to family pressures and left the freedom rides before he wanted to.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:34 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hypnotic Chick: A couple of nights ago, PBS showed a documentary about the Freedom Riders. Really powerful movie.

Following that documentary link, you can watch the film on PBS.org. I don't know if they have any per-country filter, but they also have the transcript as HTML or PDF.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:36 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


And the PBS site also has short bios on the Freedom Riders. And the Wikipedia page on the Freedom Riders gives a concise history and plot of events.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:39 AM on May 18, 2011


It's completely shocking to me that that happened only 50 years ago.

I'm 47. In my lifetime we've gone from it being illegal for me and a black person to sit in the same part of a bus in parts of this country to a black guy being president.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:47 AM on May 18, 2011 [18 favorites]


The interview with Zwerg from that PBS documentary.
posted by Kattullus at 7:49 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


He was drawn to the Freedom Rides after he was assigned a black roommate while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin

Sometimes I am just so proud of my alma mater and the people it attracts. Sorry to draw attention to it unnecessarily, but this really struck home for me.

And this detail is just insane to me:
Even after he was taken to a nearby hospital, Zwerg learned later, he was not safe. "A nurse said she drugged me the first night because there was a mob coming within a block of the hospital to lynch me," he says. "She didn't want me to be aware of anything if they got me."


I had no idea about the photo or the story. And I'm not at all religious, but I'm so glad his faith helped him get through it all, from the beating to the healing (physical and emotional) that came later. Even if it was never as intense as it was during the beating.

This was amazing, especially those last paragraphs. Thanks so much for posting.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 7:52 AM on May 18, 2011


I'd really be interested in hearing an interview from the mob members. How do they integrate that kind of violent action, so clearly now (and then) on the wrong side of history, with the rest of their lives?

Very likely, by continuing to be racist as shit. It's only marginally less publicly acceptable nowadays..
posted by FatherDagon at 7:59 AM on May 18, 2011


Made me cry.

What phenomenal courage and strength he and his compatriots demonstrated.
posted by rtha at 8:04 AM on May 18, 2011


This part near the end just ruined me:

"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?"

posted by ORthey at 8:07 AM on May 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Brings to mind Romans 8:36-37
As it is written:
   “For your sake we face death all day long;
   we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.


Men and women like this make me proud to call myself a Christian.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:10 AM on May 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


That end brought me to tears. That gave me one of those brief moments of hope for humanity. I really needed that today.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:12 AM on May 18, 2011


"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?"

They most I've ever cried during a movie was during a similar scene in Schindler's List. I mean, big, wracking sobs... I had to stop the movie and get myself back together.
posted by empath at 9:14 AM on May 18, 2011


I think the important thing about people like him wasn't that he was white, but that he didn't have to do anything at all. He could have stood by and watched like millions of other people did, while other people were being oppressed. He could have had a comfortable life. He chose not to.
posted by empath at 9:16 AM on May 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


empath, I disagree -- it was important that he was white. The attackers were white, and they saw themselves as good Christian men who were defending against evil savages. If he'd been black, that picture wouldn't have been a wakeup call, it would have just depicted the desired outcome. That he was a white guy who explicitly referenced his Christian faith to the point that he prayed for the forgiveness of the people who were about to beat him to death made him a powerful symbol in the way that a person of color could never be.

I think one of the reasons the civil rights protests of the 1960s were so effective is because the protesters, to some degree, understood the power of the emerging national media in a way that the defenders of the status quo did not. It's a lot easier to sympathize with the nice young people in suits praying as they are pummeled with fire hoses than it is with the angry, grinning guys throwing rocks. These days, the enforcers of the status quo make sure that all those unfortunate things happen in places where cameras can't record them, rather than out in the open air.
posted by KathrynT at 9:32 AM on May 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


A profile in courage.
posted by caddis at 9:49 AM on May 18, 2011


If his own father hadn't been such a racist, his life would have been far less tortured.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:43 AM on May 18, 2011


I was so moved by this article & look forward to watching the documentary. As cynical as I can sometimes be in my thoughts about organized religion, I am moved that his faith continued to be a support for him. I can only be supportive of someone who has gone through what he experienced, was emotionally abandoned by his parents, & yet continued in his struggle to do what he believed was right, in spite of continued self-doubt and guilt. I stand in awe of all of the Freedom Riders & cannot say that their actions were anything less than truly heroic.
posted by PepperMax at 10:44 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wonder how many in the mob were intoxicated. Lynchings in the South were apparently connected to alcohol, which I did not know until I read that paper.

Men and women like those in the Freedom Riders have become more and more to me real heroes - people I look up to and are inspired by to continue going forward. And as a person of faith, it's actually really important for me to hear about this man's own religious struggles. I need to hear that - so often the only portrait of the life of faith that we are presented with (even if it's just ourselves presenting to ourselves) is one of absolute certainty, leaving most of us completely lost when we are unable to have anything approaching certainty.

For those who saw the documentary, would you suggest watching it with your kids (say a 9-year-old boy)? Just wondering about when you start to bring more visceral things like this into their lives.
posted by scunning at 10:46 AM on May 18, 2011


CheeseDigestsAll - maybe so. Maybe not. Life is hard even with the perfect parents. Who knows what his father and mother experienced. It's easy to box them in as simply monstrous racists when one doesn't know them, but no one is that simple. No one is the monster we think they are, and no one is the saint or hero. Everybody is fighting impossible battles, even racist parents from the early 60s. For them to have had a son like Zwerg, who clearly passionately loved his father, you have to imagine that this was for the dad extremely hard within him. I think we should always resist the desire to believe the worst about people with whom we passionately disagree. "Everyone has their reasons".
posted by scunning at 11:06 AM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I stand in awe of all of the Freedom Riders & cannot say that their actions were anything less than truly heroic.

You know those bumper stickers that say "Land of the Free, Because of the Brave, Support the Troops"? I want to make one (or a T-shirt) that says "Land of the Free Because of the Brave: Support the Civil Rights Movement." But I don't have the design chops to pull it off. "Civil Rights Movement" is a clunky phrase to set for someone who has no talent.
posted by KathrynT at 11:08 AM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


scunning, did you read this:
His parents' rejection erased the closeness Zwerg once felt with them. ... "The two people I loved the most hurt me, so, by God, I wasn't going to love anybody," Zwerg says. ... Zwerg began to drink heavily during his senior year, and at one time he contemplated suicide.

Now I'm not saying his life wouldn't have been hard, but his father's rejection due to the "niggers" had a tremendous impact. Maybe he (the father) had other redeeming qualities, but he certainly was racist, and he allowed those attitudes to overshadow any feelings toward his son.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:15 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


CheeseDigestsAll - I did read that. My saying that his life wouldn't have been so hard had his parents accepted his decision was not intentionally meant to downplay that, though I probably was doing that. I was trying to say mainly that I think it is very hard to really know the counterfactual timeline for something like this. The man was crushed beneath a mountain, and sometimes even people with very supportive communities and families still are destroyed by it. That said, it is tragic that he lost his family, and I did not mean to imply otherwise. I have a tendency to always want to push back against the tendency to systematically alter another person's humanity, though, and I worry that oftentimes that happens with those people we consider to be our enemies. That is one reason that Jesus's words to "love our enemies" feels so pointed. You cannot love your enemy if you do not understand his or her humanity. If you do not see them as sharing in the same basic day-to-day fights that you face. Anytime we are doing that, we are perverting who they really are, which is more than merely a tupperware container of their worst actions and thoughts. And that was mainly my point.

But you are right, and I probably was projecting a lot in responding. He does tie his own life's difficulties in part to losing his family after that night. I can't really imagine what that must've been. Charles Person also expresses going through a very hard time after those Rides, too, though. Person notes that this was a time where access to mental healthcare, let alone even the existence of quality mental healthcare, was uncommon. None of them received counseling after that night. You can bet that Zwerg's parents never had it, either. Yet what would cause a parent to disown their own son, and then to see those photographs? I just suspect that there is a story in this that is the story of Zwerg's parents, and it was anything other than bright and cheery following that night. Who knows what it was must have been like. I think a lot of people know that it is very, very hard, though, to bridge those distances created by one's own failures and actions and the actions of another. And I suspect the mother and father carried a lot of unspoken, inchoate regret and pain over their actions, just like a lot of us feel towards friends and family members who we have failed terribly.

Which is probably just to say that I shouldn't project all of my own impulsive thoughts and feelings into conversations like this, as they are really just personal things for me. I just feel like (I'm doing it again), though, there are a lot of people who are piled on, and have been piled on constantly their entire lives, and at the margin, it's probably far more valuable to practice understanding, sympathy and love for those people since in equilibrium, that's likely to be the one thing no one is doing or has done towards them in a long time. Anyway, yes - I do see your point, and it's valid.
posted by scunning at 11:35 AM on May 18, 2011


But coming down from the mountaintop, after the movement, was deflating, Zwerg says. He couldn't find that bond again. "It's a tremendous downer. You look for it everywhere. I've never experienced it since. The closest thing I've experienced to it is the love of my wife."

Many of his colleagues had the same struggles. Some couldn't keep jobs because they couldn't handle authority. One stepped in front of a bus and killed himself. Another drank himself to death. Many experienced some type of post-traumatic stress.


Sometimes the world is too cruel to the people who make it less cruel.
posted by jonp72 at 12:37 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


"A nurse said she drugged me the first night because there was a mob coming within a block of the hospital to lynch me," he says. "She didn't want me to be aware of anything if they got me."

That bit got me too, six-or-six-thirty. It would be interesting to find her and ask for her memories of those events.
posted by Glinn at 12:53 PM on May 18, 2011


He was drawn to the Freedom Rides after he was assigned a black roommate while attending Beloit College in Wisconsin

Colleges That Change Lives FTW.

In truth, even when I attended two decades later, they were still trying really really hard to integrate the few black students they attracted. At the time (no longer), they had been unable to (afford) attract a single black faculty member. At the time of this 1969 action, there were 35 black students among 600, and I think the total was lower when I was there with a 900-1000 student body. But by then many colleges were "competing" for black students.

But Beloit is definitely the sort of place that, even in the early 1960s, would randomly assign a black and a white student as roommates.

He doesn't say much about how the students related to him afterward, only about he related to people generally.
posted by dhartung at 1:10 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


What a breathtaking, heartbreaking story. I had never seen that picture before. As the child of an interracial couple, stories like this really bring home the tremendous sacrifices that made my very existence possible (less than a generation after these events).

The saddest part is that his parents placed blame on his black colleagues and on the movement, rather than on the bloodthirsty mob of racists that nearly took his life. Even in their partial reconciliation, his mother couldn't bring herself to condemn the mob and the hateful way of life they stood for.

I cried at the end (as much as you can cry at your desk). I'm glad he found a little redemption in the form of Jim Davis' gratitude.

Thanks for posting.
posted by swingbraid at 1:41 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I watched the documentary referenced in the article's Editor's Note and in comments here last night. The Freedom RIdes were a topic I was intently interested in college. The documentary is a highly recommended watch.
posted by IvoShandor at 11:14 PM on May 18, 2011


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