One of the hallmarks of a good nonfiction book is the ability to educate with enlightening and enthralling prose. The recently published Freedom Riders is just such a book. It is the story of two men in particular and a generation in general of Americans who spoke out and acted out in the cause of racial equality.
This book also serves the purpose of another hallmark of good nonfiction: to shine the spotlight on a detailed segment of a larger picture, in order to increase the reader's knowledge and understanding of important issues and events in history. And it at this that this book excels.
The book, written by Ann Bausum, tells the specific story of John Lewis, and African-American, and Jim Zwerg, an English-American, who became friends and allies in an important yet not all that often publicized episode in American history: the Freedom Rides.
We learn the stories of Lewis and Zwerg before they meet. In the process, the author highlights in a very large and detailed way the specific nature of the two societies that existed in America for most of the century following the Civil War. Lewis suffers all the indignities that the legally supported segretation system can heap on him; Zwerg enjoys all the privileges that his skin colors affor him.
Yet the two become friends and end up participating in the bus rides that resulted in a hundred bruises, contusions, and life-threatening words and blows. At one point, Zwerg is beaten so badly that he barely avoids death and spends weeks in a hospitalall because he dared to speak up for rights enjoyed by himself that were denied to his good friend Lewis and others of his skin color.
The book follows the sordid saga of segregation and its opponents, highlighting such more familiar episodes as lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom marches of Martin Luther King, Jr. We also learn quite a bit about Supreme Court cases that both liberated and restrained the liberation of African-Americans.
Along the way, the reader is treated to many horrific images, both in words and in pictures. This is not a book for the faint of heart or for someone who has an idealized view of how Martin Luther King changed America. Rather, this books serves to illustrate just how inhumanely thousands of Americans behaved toward their fellow Americans, at a time when the laws of the land supported that behavior.
Lewis and Zwerg, the focal points of the narrative, are still alive today, and they remain in contact. They are both ministers, following in King's footsteps. Their intertwined stories include some of the most harrowing and courageous acts in American history.
This is, in the end, a great book. The photos, despite their ability to stir discomfort, are first-rate, as is the accompanying timeline. The result is a fantastic narration highlighting bravery on an extraordinary scale in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Lewis and Zwerg stood up for what they believed in and inspired thousands of others to do the same.