James Zwerg, an Appleton native, attended Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. However, after a black roommate at Beloit College opened his eyes to the cruelty of segregation, Zwerg enrolled in a one-year exchange program with Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. Zwerg was a 21-year-old student at Fisk University during the freedom rides in 1961. While in Nashville, Zwerg took part in sit-ins and was elected to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was part of a group of about 150 people, mostly college students, who set out in May 1961 to ride from Washington to New Orleans to test a Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation on interstate public transportation.
An angry mob was waiting for the freedom riders when they arrived in Montgomery, Alabama. The mob descended on the buses and beat the riders severely. When the beating ended, Zwerg had three cracked vertebrae, a broken nose, a concussion and all of his teeth were fractured.
After his release from the hospital, Zwerg returned to Beloit to recuperate and finish school. His deeply religious faith led him to become a United Church of Christ pastor. Zwerg is now retired from the ministry and living with his wife of 37 years. He was prominently featured in the 1999, 26-part, PBS production called "People's Century." The documentary contained both archival footage and present-day interviews. Zwerg also participated in a re-creation of the freedom rides in 2001, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the civil rights milestone.