Before the late congressman John Lewis coined the phrase “good trouble,” he and Jim Zwerg, a former Eau Claire resident, lived it out. I first learned of this local connection to the larger civil rights story a few years back, while writing a book on the Freedom Riders.
How on a cool February night in 1961, 20-year-old Zwerg first met 19-year-old Lewis outside a movie theater in Nashville. Zwerg, a white college student originally from Appleton, had recently enrolled in Nashville’s Fisk University — a historically Black school — as part of an exchange program. Prior to his arrival in Nashville, Zwerg’s interactions with Black folks had been limited.
“All through high school I didn’t know anyone with a different ethnic background,” Zwerg shared with me in a 2015 interview. “It wasn’t until my freshman year (at Beloit College), when I had a Black roommate, that I saw firsthand prejudice and discrimination.”
That school year, Zwerg overheard racist remarks whispered behind his roommate’s back, and noted, too, how the local barber refused to cut his roommate’s hair. After witnessing injustice up close, Zwerg’s commitment to social justice grew.
Two and a half years later, his commitment led him to the exchange program in Nashville, where the civil rights movement was already in full swing.
On that cool February night, Zwerg watched from across the street as a dozen demonstrators protested a segregated movie theater.
“All were nicely dressed,” Zwerg recalled. “The guys were all in suits and ties, and the girls were all in dresses. But they just stood there. They didn’t have placards, they weren’t singing any freedom songs, they weren’t trying to get any tickets. They just stood there …”
Zwerg was baffled by the seemingly low-key approach to the protest. Where were the signs, the songs, the chants? Weren’t protests supposed to be more attention-grabbing?
Zwerg approached one of the demonstrators to share his observations.
“You need to talk to our spokesman,” the demonstrator said. “And he’s up front.”
Weaving past the others, Zwerg eventually came face-to-face with Lewis, a man with whom he’d soon share a destiny. But in that moment, they were still just two strangers on the Nashville street.
Zwerg introduced himself and expressed his interest in getting involved with the movement. Lewis studied the lanky, white Wisconsinite, then said, “This demonstration is almost ending, but if you want to follow us back to the church, I’d be happy to talk to you.”
It was a decision that changed his life forever.
• • •
Three months later, on the morning of May 20, 1961, Zwerg and Lewis shared a bus seat from Birmingham to Montgomery. But this wasn’t just any bus ride; it was a Freedom Ride — one of many throughout the summer of 1961. The Freedom Riders’ mission: to test the enforcement of a pair of Supreme Court rulings that confirmed the unconstitutionality of segregation in interstate travel.
Two weeks earlier, on May 4, Freedom Rider buses had been attacked in Anniston and Birmingham, and while all the riders survived, many were severely injured. Some were hospitalized after enduring a beating at the hands of a mob, others nearly dying of smoke inhalation while trapped on a fire-bombed bus.
Yet the members of the Nashville Student Movement, Zwerg and Lewis among them, refused to be turned away by violence.
“If not us, then who,” Lewis famously remarked. “If not now, then when?”
After an uneventful ride (in part, thanks to a state highway patrol escort), the bus pulled into the Montgomery Greyhound station. No sooner had the bus come to a stop when Lewis, just waking from his nap, noticed an eerie silence had developed, and turning to Zwerg, whispered, “That’s not good.”
The riders disembarked, and just as Lewis approached a press conference microphone, the mob suddenly emerged. They spilled from the shadows between buildings, 200 or so white men armed with baseball bats and iron pipes. Zwerg and Lewis found themselves cornered, and as the mob closed in, Zwerg fell to his knees and prayed. Lewis watched, horrified, as Zwerg endured blow after blow and collapsed to the pavement.
“(Lewis) had one final thought,” journalist David Halberstam wrote, “and it was that the last thing he was going to see in his life was Jim Zwerg being murdered.”
Zwerg survived, though he suffered a severe concussion, several cracked vertebrae and internal abdomen injuries.
Lewis, too, took a beating.
“Someone grabbed my briefcase, which I’d been holding in my right hand since stepping off the bus,” Lewis recounted in his memoir. “I pulled back but it was ripped from my fingers. At that instant I felt a thud against my head. I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing.”
He’d been struck by a wooden Coca-Cola crate, rendering him unconscious.
When both Zwerg and Lewis regained consciousness, they stood alongside one another near the bus station’s brick wall, Lewis gazing out at the aftermath of the moment, while Zwerg stares at Lewis, his index finger pressed into his mouth to examine a tooth. Both men’s suits were blood-spattered.
A photograph of this precise moment has been ingrained in America’s consciousness. Years later, Lewis wrote that this photo — much like the photos of the Freedom Rider’s burning bus in Anniston and those documenting 1963’s Children Crusade in Birmingham “became timeless.”
“They went out in the world,” Lewis remarked, “and no one who saw them would ever forget them.”
Our inability to forget such drama-filled photos — and in particular, white people’s inability to forget — shifted the civil rights movement from a “southern problem” to a national one. Moreover, the bloodied photograph of Zwerg and Lewis made it clear that all Americans were at the mercy of violent segregationists.
Though their paths would diverge, Jim Zwerg and John Lewis would stay in touch over the years. Lewis ran for political office and, from 1987 to his recent death in July, served as the congressman for Georgia’s fifth district. Zwerg, meanwhile, became a minister and was called to serve in churches throughout Wisconsin, including a three-year stint as associate pastor at Eau Claire’s First Congregational Church from 1968-1971.
“That was a very meaningful experience for all involved,” Zwerg said. “Eau Claire had such wonderfully, wonderfully warm people and they were very accepting”
Yet in 1971 Zwerg and his family were called to a church in Tucson. He was pleased with his work in Eau Claire, but felt it was time to head a church of his own. Plus, he conceded, he was “getting a little tired of the cold.”
In 2015, Zwerg and Lewis reunited at Lawrence University in Appleton, where both men received honorary degrees. In his commencement address, Lewis reminded students, “We are one people, we are one family, we are one house. We are brothers and sisters.”
Lewis employed similar language in his memoir, noting that throughout the movement, Black and white people became “brothers and sisters” in their shared fight for social justice.
“We bled together. We suffered together,” Lewis said.
It’s hard to trace the precise convergence of events that brought a young, white Wisconsinite and a young, Black Alabamian together on a bus seat all those years ago. But by sitting together, suffering together, and continuing the fight nonetheless, Zwerg and Lewis demonstrated to the nation what the future of the civil rights movement might look like: one rooted in allyship, shared sacrifice, and checking one’s privilege in the service of progress.
Today, we mourn the loss of Congressman John Lewis, though we should celebrate, too, all he’s left behind: a blueprint for a better world, and an invitation for each of us to stand tall by taking our seat alongside him. To make “good trouble” wherever we can — from Alabama to Wisconsin and beyond.