Freedom Rider James Zwerg stands bleeding after an attack by white pro-segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961. Zwerg remained in the street for over an hour after the beating, since "white ambulances" refused to treat him.

Why the furor over the white teen in the MAGA hat hurts people who most need to be seen

Updated 11:51 AM ET, Fri January 25, 2019

(CNN)He was a young white man whose act of defiance went viral, the center of a racial controversy that divided America and the subject of a video that sparked a media firestorm.

Some called him a hero. Others just wanted to punch him in the face.
His name is James Zwerg, and he was part of an interracial group of civil rights activists dubbed the "Freedom Riders." They were attacked by a white mob carrying chains and clubs at an Alabama bus station in 1961 for defying Jim Crow laws.
A gruesome photo of Zwerg's bloodied face made the front page of newspapers across America. And when a news crew videotaped an interview with him from his hospital bed after the attack, he grew even more famous because of the resolve he displayed.
"We will continue our journey, one way or another," he said. "We are prepared to die."
Those images of Zwerg marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. But I wonder if such an image could still inspire so many people today after what's happened this week to another young white man whose face has gone viral.
Student Nick Sandmann, left, became the subject of viral scorn over a video shot at the Lincoln Memorial.
Nick Sandmann is now known as the smiling -- or smirking -- teen in the red Make America Great Again hat. Most commentators have cited Sandman's standoff with a Native American veteran at the Lincoln Memorial as a parable about rushed judgment. They say that people were quick to heap scorn on the Kentucky teenager without knowing all the facts. One commentator complained that social media can reduce "a complex human life into one viral moment."
I see it as the destruction of something else: The great hope that cell phone video footage of hateful acts would lead to a racial awakening in America.

Why cell phone video may actually deepen racial divisions

Not long ago, plenty of people predicted that cell phone videos would usher in a new era of racial tolerance. Pundits thought citizen journalists recording acts of blatant racism would nudge white Americans into developing more empathy for people of color. No longer would a racial minority have to prove that pervasive racism existed. They could prove it through the power of a recorded image.
That was the hope many felt when a video of Eric Garner gasping "I can't breathe" on a New York City sidewalk went viral in 2014. That was the same hope others felt when repeated videos surfaced last year showing police being called on African Americans for "living while black" -- going about their daily business in public.
Police arrested two black men last year for waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks.
Some declared that live-streaming video could "change the face of justice," while another commentator said social media would "spawn a new civil rights movement."
"The revolution will not only be televised but apparently it will also be uploaded, downloaded, streamed, posted and tweeted as well," David Love declared in a 2015 article in TheGrio, an online magazine.
But last week's standoff at the Lincoln Memorial signals that we're at the cusp of a counterrevolution against all of these disturbing racial images. People can now credibly say that seeing is no longer believing.
Cell phone videos may actually widen racial divisions instead of bridging them.
Consider what would happen if Zwerg's video was released today. There's an entire media ecosystem dedicated to refuting claims of racism -- and it would be ready to pounce.
This iconic photo of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of a Kent State University student killed in a 1970 protest galvanized the anti-war movement.
Someone would go on Twitter and say the photo of Zwerg's bloodied face was doctored. Another person would claim that there was actually missing video footage that showed that he was injured in a fall, not by a mob. Another might even claim that Zwerg attacked the mob, not the other way around.
And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Critical examination of racial images is a must. There are unscrupulous souls who profit off of the stoking of racial outrage. Twitter suspended an account that amplified the video of Sandmann's face-off with the Native American elder, calling the Kentucky teen a "MAGA loser." It supposedly belonged to a California teacher, but CNN Business traced it to a blogger in Brazil.
But I wonder if people realize how much we lose when a picture is no longer worth a thousand words -- it sparks a thousand different interpretations.
It's easier to ignore what we don't want to see, says Lee McIntyre, author of "Post-Truth," a book that examines how "alternative facts replace actual facts, and feelings have more weight than evidence."
"People have always been prone to believe the facts they want and question those they don't," he says. "So if someone is motivated to deny that a particular video shows brutality, that may devolve into questioning whether it has been doctored, what happened before the video was turned on, and whether the person taking it staged something."

How viral images helped spur social justice movements

But even more may be lost when we can't trust what we see.
How can groups of people who are invisible to people in power make themselves known in an era where everything can be denied?
Think of how vital images have been to social justice movements. For some groups of people, it was the weapon of protest that really worked.
One of the Western world's first viral images wasn't taken with a cell phone. It went viral centuries ago. It was an illustration of chained Africans packed in the cargo hold of a slave ship, and it helped spur the abolitionist movement in 18th-century Britain. Abolitionists were able to successfully mobilize public support against slavery because that image shocked so many people.
Or how about the power of another videotape that was never debunked?
An anonymous demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy in Tiananmen Square during student protests in China in 1989.