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

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(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.