MAY 20, 1961

In this 1961 photo, civil rights leader John Lewis, left, stands next to James Zwerg, a Fisk University student. Both were attacked during the Freedom Rides. Credit: AP

A white mob of more than 300, including Klansmen, attacked Freedom Riders at the Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery, Alabama. Future Congressman John Lewis was among them. 

“An angry mob came out of nowhere, hundreds of people, with bricks and balls, chains,” Lewis recalled. 

After beating on the riders, the mob turned on reporters and then Justice Department official John Seigenthaler, who was beaten unconscious and left in the street after helping two riders. 

“Then they turned on my colleagues and started beating us and beat us so severely, we were left bloodied and unconscious in the streets of Montgomery,” Lewis recalled. 

As the mob headed his way, Freedom Rider James Zwerg said he asked for God to be with him, and “I felt absolutely surrounded by love. I knew that whether I lived or died, I was going to be OK.” 

The mob beat him so badly that his suit was soaked in blood. 

“There was nothing particularly heroic in what I did,” he said. “If you want to talk about heroism, consider the Black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said ‘Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.’ And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital.” 

To quell the violence, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent in 450 federal marshals.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.