John Lewis is going to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom today. I’ve written about John Lewis repeatedly over the life of Booman Tribune. I admire and respect him more than any other living American. I am very happy to see him honored by the first African-American president. Without John Lewis, there is no President Obama.

May 20, 1961: Freedom Riders John Lewis and James Zwerg after being attacked and beaten by segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama.

Here, Jim Zwerg contextualizes the photograph (above):

Q: You were attacked when you arrived at the bus station?

Zwerg: The idea had been that cars from the community would meet us. We’d disperse into these cars, get out into the community, and avoid the possibility of violence. And the next morning we were to come back to the station and I would use the colored services and they would go to some of the white services — the restroom, the water fountain, etc. And then you’d get on the bus and go to the next city. It was meant to be as non-violent as possible, to avoid confrontation as much as possible.

Well, before we got off the bus, we looked out and saw the crowd. You could see things in their hands — hammers, chains, pipes… there was some conversation about it. As we got off the bus, there was some anxiety. We started looking for the cars. But the mob had surrounded the bus station so there was no way cars could get in and we realized at that moment that we were going to get it.

There was a fellow, a reporter, with an old boom mike and he was panning the crowd. And that’s when this heavy-set fellow in a white T-shirt… he had a cigar as I remember… came out and grabbed the mike and jumped on it… just smashed it… basically telling the press, “Back off! You are not going to take any pictures of this. You better stay out or you’re going to get it next.” You could hear crowd yelling and of course a lot of them were, “Get the nigger-lover!” I was the only white guy there.

I bowed my head and asked God to give me the strength and love that I would need, that I put my life in his hands, and to forgive them. And I had the most wonderful religious experience. I felt a presence as close to me as breath itself, if you will, that gave me peace knowing that whatever came, it was okay. Before I opened my eyes, I was grabbed. I was pulled over a railing and thrown to the ground. I remember trying to get up on all fours because you try to get back to your group.

One of the things that I alluded to earlier was the strength we got from one another. To this day I’m sure I’m not the most nonviolent person in the world, but the strength of those people with me gave me strength beyond my own capabilities. Just as when we would see someone else being beaten, our hearts went to them and our strength went to them.

Q: Were you hurt?

Zwerg: Traditionally a white man got picked out for the violence first. That gave the rest of the folks a chance to get away. I was told that several tried to get into the bus terminal. I was knocked to the ground. I remember being kicked in the spine and hearing my back crack, and the pain. I fell on my back and a foot came down on my face. The next thing I remember is waking up in the back of a vehicle and John Lewis handing me a rag to wipe my face. I passed out again and when I woke up I was in another moving vehicle with some very southern-sounding whites. I figured I’m off to get lynched. I had no idea who they were. Again, I went unconscious and I woke up in the hospital. I was informed that I had been unconscious for a day and a half. One of the nurses told me that another little crowd were going to try and lynch me. They had come within a half block of the hospital. She said that she knocked me out in case they did make it, so that I would not be aware of what was happening. I mean, those pictures that appeared in the magazines, the interview… I don’t remember them at all. I do remember a class of students — I think they were high school age, coming to visit me one time.

John Lewis took many beatings. His worst beating came during the march in Selma, Alabama where his skull was fractured.

People need to remember how much courage it took to end Jim Crow. Remember to honor John Lewis today.

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