By Emily Zawacki
Even if you may not have recognized this year’s Commencement honorees by name, you undoubtedly have learned of their significance in any American history class. John Lewis, a U.S. representative for Georgia since 1987, and James Zwerg, an Appleton native, were both members of the Freedom Riders and played instrumental roles in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.
Lewis is considered to be one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders and was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. He met Zwerg, whose parents were both graduates of Lawrence, in 1961 in Nashville, Tenn., where Zwerg was an exchange student at Fisk University.
In 1960, Lewis began participating in nonviolent sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, and in 1961, both he and Zwerg participated in stand-ins at local movie theaters to protest the city’s segregation there.
Then, in May 1961, Lewis and Zwerg embarked on the historic Freedom Rides. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that segregated public buses were unconstitutional, this ruling was not enforced and bus travel remained segregated in the South.
The Freedom Riders—who protested this status quo by riding in mixed racial groups—traveled on buses throughout the South and endured physical and verbal violence from mobs of racist white Southerners. Both Lewis and Zwerg were violently beaten and arrested.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan attacked Freedom Riders that arrived in Birmingham, Ala., and destroyed the film from journalists’ cameras so that only one photo survived to document their violence. Video of a burning bus near Anniston, Ala., attacked by another racist mob, made the national news and began to draw worldwide attention to the Freedom Rides.
While racial problems in the South were becoming explicitly visible to the country, they existed in a far more opaque form in the North. Lawrence students and members of the Appleton community were cognizant of the high racial tensions in the country, but racism still needed to be addressed at home.
In April 1963, nearly 80 Lawrence students and faculty members petitioned in the Appleton community in support of the boycott of segregated business in Jackson, Miss. The Lawrentian reported that at the time there was only “one Negro” living in Appleton—which had a population of 50,000— so segregation was not perceived as a local problem.
Nearly 3,000 Appleton residents signed the business boycott petition in what The Lawrentian hoped would be a way to begin “to think about the question of racial equality and Appleton’s own racial problems.”
However, the petition did not necessarily address the true racial prejudices in the community, and one woman signed the petition with the explanation that she did so “because I want to keep them happy down there so they won’t come up here.”
An April 17, 1964 Letter to the Editor in The Lawrentian described how civil rights in Appleton were sometimes still presented with the “old it’s-not-our-problem philosophy.”
Mary Duncan ’66 wrote, “To the best of my knowledge no Lawrence student has been refused service in town public accommodations because of color. This would seem to confirm a belief that the citizens have not felt themselves strongly affected by a civil rights issue, much less an integration problem.”
In order to educate students and citizens on the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Executive Council (SEC)—a precursor to Lawrence Uuniversity Community Council—sponsored Civil Rights Week at Lawrence in late April 1964. While the week was hosted by Lawrence, it was intended to also provide a space for discussion in the greater Appleton community.
In addition to bringing in speakers like Sydney Finley and Charles Evers—the brother of the slain Medgar Evers—from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), SEC also planned to run a fundraiser for the United Negro College Funds and conclude with a “Fast for Freedom” dinner, where students could choose to forgo their evening meal and donate the cost of it to SNCC.
Lewis, who at the time was the head field secretary for the SNCC, was one of the main invited speakers for Civil Rights Week and gave a talk on “Student participation and responsibility in the Civil Rights Movement” in the old union.
In line with Lewis’s call for active participation, the Editorial Board of The Lawrentian wrote on March 6, 1964 that “Assuredly, the primary aim of [Civil Rights Week] is to educate people, and hopefully it may result in the realization for some that Negroes are entitled to equal opportunity. Unfortunately, however, realizations easily die unless action follows the conviction. Intellectual considerations are meaningless if they are not combined with a concern to act.”
“Thus, The Lawrentian feels the week is a perfect opportunity for students and community to become informed on a national and necessarily local problem, by meeting informed leaders, engaging in discussion and acting upon their resolutions.”
After his speech at Lawrence, Lewis continued to be an active leader in the Civil Rights Movement and played a prominent role in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.
Lewis returned to Lawrence for a second time in 2005 when he delivered a convocation address entitled “Get in the Way,” urging students to “Get in the way, get in trouble, necessary trouble. Good trouble.”
In the age of the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, Lewis’s and Zwerg’s words at Commencement this year will be as pertinent as ever, so it is important to not only listen to what they have to say, but to act upon their resolutions as well.