The Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement
is a historical nonfiction book by American author Ann Bausum. It chronicles the lives of its titular characters, Lewis and Zwerg, who joined the Freedom Riders, an interracial organization that challenged segregation laws by exploiting a minor Supreme Court ruling against its legality in the spring and summer of 1961. Lewis, a black man, and Zwerg, a white man, rode interstate buses together through major U.S. cities to protest desegregation. The two men are now credited as major players in catalyzing more progressive desegregation laws in the United States, an accomplishment central to the Civil Rights Era. Bausum contextualizes Lewis and Zwerg among a multitude of activists who risked their lives to defend racial justice.
The book begins with two forewords, one from Lewis and one from Zwerg. The pieces distinguish the men in terms of their privileges, challenges, familial lives, and adolescent journeys. Zwerg grew up as the son of a dentist who provided free care to the poor and instilled in him a passion for justice and civics. As a high schooler, he engaged in the Civil Rights Movement’s early protests. He went on to become a minister, then met Lewis and joined the Freedom Riders. Lewis was born in Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. He grew up totally segregated from the white world and met only two before he reached kindergarten. During college, he became a civil rights activist and was a primary orchestrator of the Nashville sit-ins.
In her analysis, Bausum first explains the legal developments that led to the idea behind the Freedom Riders. After two key Supreme Court decisions, Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), segregated public buses were ruled unconstitutional. However, many southern states refused to implement the ruling and desegregate their bus systems, often citing financial reasons, or declaring outright rebellion against the country’s highest court. Lewis and Zwerg joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), in an endeavor to challenge southern de facto
segregation by riding interstate buses from the desegregated northern states into the South.
The rides lasted throughout the summer and fall before they exerted enough political pressure to topple the South’s resistance against the Supreme Court’s ruling. Though segregation still continued, and continues to this day, in subtle and systemic ways, its explicit abolition represents a milestone in civil rights progress. Bausum paints the convergence of Lewis and Zwerg as unlikely given their disparate backgrounds: they were born on opposite sides of the country, and their privilege (or lack thereof) exposed them to entirely different worlds and sets of discourse. Lewis went on to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom and is now a U.S. Congressman. Zwerg settled in Arizona and now works as a public speaker on civil rights issues, showing how imperatives of the 1960s resonate with those of more recent civil rights movements and coalitions. The Freedom Riders
is a testament to the fact that even the most seemingly dissimilar people can form friendships and seek out the same values in society.