The National Youth Summit allows students to talk with and learn from four legendary Freedom Riders:
Congressman John Lewis
Freedom Rider, Troy, AL
By the time 19-year-old John Lewis joined the 1961 CORE Freedom ride, he already had five arrests under his belt as a veteran of the Nashville Student Movement. The son of hardscrabble tenant farmers from Pike County, AL, he attended American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, TN where he was deeply influenced by Rev. Kelly Miller Smith and Rev. James Lawson.
On May 10, several days before the Riders crossed into Alabama, Lewis had left the CORE Ride to interview for a fellowship. By chance, he was in Nashville on May 14 when the news broke of the violent bus burning in Anniston, AL and the riot at the Birmingham Trailways Bus Station. Lewis helped to convince his friends and mentors from the Nashville Student Movement to get involved. He rode to Birmingham with the Nashville cohort, endured the angry mob in Montgomery, and was arrested in Jackson and served jail time at Mississippi’s Parchman State Prison Farm.
Lewis would become the best-known among the youthful Freedom Riders, serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, and playing a pivotal role in the 1965 Selma — Montgomery March. In 1986, John Lewis was elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives where he currently is serving his 12th term.
Freedom Rider, Chicago, IL
By 1961, Diane Nash had emerged as one of the most respected student leaders of the sit-in movement in Nashville, TN. Raised in middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Nash attended Howard University before transferring to Nashville’s Fisk University in the fall of 1959. Shocked by the extent of segregation she encountered in Tennessee, she was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. In February 1961 she served jail time in solidarity with the “Rock Hill Nine” — nine students imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in.
When the students learned of the bus burning in Anniston, AL and the riot in Birmingham, AL, Nash argued that it was their duty to continue.
“It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence,” says Nash in Stanley Nelson’s film Freedom Riders.
Elected coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Ride, Nash monitored the progress of the Ride from Nashville, Tennessee, recruiting new Riders, speaking to the press, and working to gain the support of national Movement leaders and the federal government.
Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy John Seigenthaler recalls a phone conversation with Nash where he tried to dissuade the Nashville Freedom Riders from going to Alabama, warning of the violence ahead. Nash replied that the Riders had signed their last wills and testaments prior to departure.
In his interview for Freedom Riders, Seigenthaler recalls, “She in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.”
Nash played a key role in bringing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery, AL on May 21 in support of the Riders. She herself was present for the violent siege of First Baptist Church.
Later that same year, she married Freedom Rider James Bevel. In 1962, she was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, MS, although she was four months pregnant. She was later released on appeal. Nash played a major role in the Birmingham de-segregation campaign of 1963 and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965, before returning to her native Chicago to work in education, real estate and fair housing advocacy. She received an honorary degree from Fisk University in 2009.
Freedom Rider, Nashville, TN
Thirty-two-year-old Rev. James Lawson introduced the principles of Gandhian nonviolence to many future leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Born in western Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, he spent a year in prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, as well as three years as a Methodist missionary in India, where he was deeply influenced by the philosophy and techniques of nonviolent resistance developed by Mohandas Gandhi and his followers.
While enrolled as a divinity student at Oberlin College, Lawson met Martin Luther King, Jr., who urged Lawson to postpone his studies and take an active role in the Civil Rights Movement. “We don’t have anyone like you,” King told him.
Following King’s advice, Lawson headed south as a field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Nashville, TN, he helped organize the Nashville Student Movement’s successful sit-in campaign of 1960 and was expelled from Vanderbilt University School of Divinity as a result. He trained Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis and many others through his famous workshops on the tactics of nonviolent direct action.
When the original CORE Freedom Ride stalled in Birmingham, AL, Lawson urged the Nashville Student Movement to continue the Freedom Rides. He conducted workshops on nonviolent resistance while the Freedom Riders spent several days holed up in the Montgomery, AL home of Dr. Richard Harris. During an impromptu press conference on the National Guard-escorted bus that traveled from Montgomery to Jackson, MS, he told reporters that the Freedom Riders “would rather risk violence and be able to travel like ordinary passengers” than rely on armed guards who did not understand their philosophy of combating “violence and hate” by “absorbing it without returning it in kind.”
In 1968, Lawson chaired the strike committee for sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. At Lawson’s request, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the striking workers on the day before his assassination. In 1974, Lawson moved to Los Angeles to lead Holman United Methodist Church where he served as pastor for 25 years before retiring in 1999. Throughout his career and into retirement, he has remained active in various human rights advocacy campaigns, including immigrant rights and opposition to war and militarism. In recent years he has been a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University.
Freedom Rider, Appleton, WI
Jim Zwerg was a 21-year-old exchange student from Beloit College in Wisconsin who became active in the Nashville sit-in movement after attending one of James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolence. As one of the two whites selected for the May 17 Nashville Movement Freedom Ride, he expected that he would be targeted for violence as a “race traitor.” On May 20, his predictions proved accurate when he was beaten savagely during the riot at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station. Photographs of a bloodied, beaten Zwerg made headlines around the world.
“We will continue our journey one way or another. We are prepared to die,” Zwerg told reporters from his hospital bed in St. Jude’s Catholic Hospital. After the Freedom Rides, Zwerg worked as a United Church of Christ minister until 1975. Later, he worked as a personnel manager for IBM and at a hospice in Tucson, AZ, where he later retired. His close friendship with John Lewis is the subject of Ann Bausum’s award winning book for young adults, Freedom Riders (1986).
The National Youth Summit will be moderated by Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The panel will also include award winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary film Freedom Riders.
Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and Program Advisor of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he has taught since 1980. A specialist in the political, social, and environmental history of the American South, he has also taught at the University of Minnesota, Brandeis University, and at the Universite d’Angers, in France, where he was a Fulbright Lecturer in 1984-85. From 1980 to 1987, he was the co-director of the Fulbright Commission’s Summer Institute on American Studies at the University of Minnesota; he has served as a consultant for numerous museums and public institutions, including the National Park Service, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum, and the United States Information Agency; and he has lectured on American history and culture in a number of countries, including France, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Norway, Turkey, and Jordan.
Arsenault was educated at Princeton University (B.A. 1969) and Brandeis University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1981. He is the author of two prize-winning books–The Wild Ass of the Ozarks: Jeff Davis and the Social Bases of Southern Politics (1984, pbk 1988) and St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950 (1988, pbk. 1998), and of “The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture,” Journal of Southern History (1984), which won the Southern Historical Association’s Green-Ramsdell Prize. An edited volume, Crucible of Liberty: 200 Years of the Bill of Rights, was published during the 1991 Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. His recent publications include Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press, 2006), Paradise Lost? (2005) an anthology (co-edited with Jack Davis) on the environmental history of Florida, The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968 (2002), co-edited with Roy Peter Clark, and “The Public Storm: Hurricanes and the State in Twentieth-Century America,” in Wendy Gamber, et al. eds., American Public Life and the Historical Imagination (2003). He is currently working on Landmarks of American Sports, co-edited with Randall Miller. Since 1996 he and USF history colleague Gary Mormino have served as the co-editors of the University Press of Florida’s highly acclaimed “Florida History and Culture” book series. An active member of the Florida affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union since the early 1980s, he served two terms as state president (1998-2000) and received the Nelson Poynter Civil Liberties Award in 2003.
Stanley Nelson, recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, is an award-winning filmmaker best known for his groundbreaking historical documentaries that illuminate critical but overlooked history. Nelson’s work for the PBS series American Experience includes Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind and The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson has been honored with the Sundance Special Jury Prize, Peabody Award, Primetime Emmy, and an IDA Award. Nelson’s most recent film, Freedom Riders features testimony from a fascinating cast of central characters: the Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the Rides firsthand. The two-hour documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
Presented by the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, in collaboration with Smithsonian Affiliations and American Experience/WGBH.