Bob Zellner: A White Southerner in the Civil Rights Movement03/24/2021

Bob Zellner: A White Southerner in the Civil Rights Movement

Born in Alabama in 1939, Bob Zellner has spent the better part of his nearly 82 years in and around the Alabama Gulf Coast. The son and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members, Zellner may have been the unlikeliest of allies to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. However, an ally he was—and is. Guided by his Methodist faith, Zellner felt a spiritual imperative to fight alongside Black Southerners in their march toward freedom, civil rights and equality. For this, he faced vicious hatred, horrific beatings and more than 18 arrests—all at the hands of white segregationists who simply could not accept that a Southern white man would so wholeheartedly support and fight for the civil rights and equality of Black Americans.

As an organizer of The Freedom Rides of 1961 and the first white southerner to serve as field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he worked alongside Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, Julian Bond, Fannie Lou Hamer and many other civil rights leaders. During his time at SNCC, Zellner organized outreach efforts to white students at Southern colleges; organized workshops on non-violence; facilitated demonstrations, sit-ins and marches; helped integrate libraries and lunch counters; and solicited volunteers and Freedom Schools during the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.

In the late 60s, Zellner left SNCC to work on GROW (Grassroots Organizing Work) in New Orleans, where he lived for more than a decade. Zellner later became involved in the world of filmmaking and worked all over the world on many civil rights films.

In 2009, Zellner released his memoir, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek (New South Books), which chronicles his journey as an ally and civil rights activist including his famous battles with the KKK, segregationist lynch mobs and violent police. The movie based on his life and book, Son of the South, was recently released to high praise.

Zellner has made it his life mission to champion civil rights and work to secure equality for all people. While he is rightfully proud of his work in the 60s and beyond, Zellner says he is primarily looking toward the future by helping a new generation understand racial, historical and cultural assumptions and helping them develop the leadership skills necessary to continue building a more inclusive world.

Coming of Age had the privilege of speaking with Bob Zellner about his life’s work and his life story.

It’s interesting to me that you grew up in Brewton, Alabama. What was your boyhood like?

Well, daddy was a Methodist preacher, so we moved a lot. About every three or four years, we knew that we would move to another town. My mother was a schoolteacher. That was my childhood in lower Alabama. Daddy was in the Alabama West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church. I think that in terms of both lower Alabama and Northwest Florida, we’ve lived all over it—from the Dothan area in the east, all the way to Mobile and the Mississippi Coast.

I was like every other Southern boy—I was very athletic. Being an Alabaman, it is very easy to be athletic because it’s practically a religion. We just did a lot of athletics. I was always attracted to the exotic types of training, like pole vaulting. Living in the woods like we did as kids, we’d make our own poles to vault with. We didn’t have any money to buy an actual pole for vaulting. We had to learn how to pick out the right hickory sapling and cut it down and cure it properly to make it into a very strong but limber pole that we could pole vault with. So that was my fascination—to do unusual athletic things. Sometimes it would break and that was very dangerous. You had to balance the strength and lightness of the pole with how safe it was going to be. We had to make our own apparatus for putting the bar way up there, sometimes 12 or 15 feet in the air. And then we had to pole vault that high and then land on something soft enough so you wouldn’t break your body just by landing on the ground. So we made big pads to land on. That took a lot of time and effort as a young boy.

The underlying current in your story is that both your father and grandfather were members of the Ku Klux Klan. I understand that your father left the Klan when he became a minister. How old was your father when he had that epiphany?

His original epiphany was in about 1935 or 1936. He must have been 19 or 20 when he had his initial epiphany, which he had in Europe in the middle of the 1930s when he was over there and Hitler had just come to power in Germany. Dad found himself in Europe and his Klan beliefs began to clash with his Christian beliefs. And that’s when he started wrestling with his racist past. It wasn’t until we were five or six years old —10 years later or so — before he finally officially broke with the Ku Klux Klan. His mother and father disowned him and his brothers never spoke to him again after that. So that was an early childhood lesson.

What was the conversation around race in your home as a boy?

I had one older brother, so we were both learning about the world and about world history. Being a Southerner, you don’t travel very much, so we were fascinated that our father had been to Germany, Poland, Russia, Latvia and Estonia. He had lived in Boston. He had all of these, for the South, very exotic tastes in foods. So we were marginal—in some ways even as little children because we didn’t live in a typical Southern family. Daddy was from the Klan side and mother was from Blountstown, Florida. Her heritage was Creek, Indian—the Apalachicola band of Creek Indians. Her father was a Methodist minister also, and he was anti-Ku Klux Klan. So even in my family, we had Klan on one side and anti-Klan on the other side. So that has been a family conversation now that’s lasted 80-something years for me. I’ll be 82 the month after next.

Do you still have family members that, if they’re not members of the KKK, are still explicitly racist? And do you speak with them?

Yes and yes. I do have people as close as my own brothers who have gone back to the old ways—not that they’ve been that way all along, but they have drifted back to the old Klan ways. So, we are on opposite sides of the political question, but we’re still a family. We love each other family-wise, but we don’t talk politics anymore directly.

That’s got to be difficult. It’s such a dividing line.

Yes, and it’s been an issue for all of my brothers. We’re all getting old and I’m the oldest. So, it’s something that we think about the closer we get to the closing of our life story—have we been on the good side or the bad side? I always like to err on the side of being soft-hearted, if the only other alternative is to be hard-hearted.

How did you become aware of the civil rights movement?

The first memory that I had about race, which is one of the funny scenes in the movie now, was being taught racial etiquette—just basic Southern racial etiquette that was deemed appropriate in East Brewton at the time. Daddy was serving the East Brewton Methodist Church, and I was about 12 or 13 working in a little country store. My boss had to tell me how to treat black customers in the store differently from white customers because I treated everybody the same. That was not the Southern way of life, so I had to be taught to practice “proper” racial etiquette. So that was my first conscious knowledge about the practical effects of segregation and racism.

Before I went off to college, a major change in my life occurred when daddy was transferred from the Methodist Church in East Brewton, Alabama, to the church on Broad Street in Mobile, Alabama. Our family moved from the small town to the big town and that was crucial to my development. I switched high schools from W.S. Neal High School in East Brewton to Murphy High School in Mobile. I was just two years at Murphy, but those were the two years that Autherine Lucy was the first black student to go to the University of Alabama. So, in the middle of my high school, there was a discussion every day among high school students about segregation and integration. I saw that I honestly felt differently than the vast majority of my high school classmates. I was curious enough to ask them why they were so fearful of one black student going to the University of Alabama. It was a puzzle to me of how they had been convinced by their parents, who were apparently adults and sane individuals, that that one black student would destroy a historical institution like the University of Alabama. I was interested in challenging them to tell me how one black student could destroy an entire university. The fact was that the adults were willing to destroy the university rather than have it enroll one black student, and that didn’t make good sense to me.

You were heavily criticized for speaking out against that. Tell me about that.

While I was in high school, it was just a tussle between all of us young people. I had a group of young people around me at Murphy High School who were also Methodist, and we were involved in Methodist programs like the Methodist Youth Fellowship. We were being challenged to think about the racial situation and decide which side we were on. So, we were already thinking about that as young Christians. To have this practical experience right in front of us--of everybody talking about integrating the University of Alabama, it was almost imperative that I would get involved in the conversation. Then I was chosen to be a graduation speaker, which was very strange to me because I had been dyslexic as a child and had not learned to read until I was in about the third or fourth grade. So, I didn’t consider myself very intelligent, but they told me that I was eligible to be a graduation speaker. The way they were going to decide who would be the speakers was to have a speaking contest. I talked to my fellow Methodists, and they talked me into entering the contest to represent the church people. So, I had a group behind me to begin with. We launched a campaign to enter the speaking contest and become one of the four speakers, and we were successful. To me, that was an example of organizing. We were becoming organizers, and we were organizing around the question of race and segregation. So, I think my course was set by the time I went from high school in Mobile up to Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Montgomery was really the middle of the kettle in the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and a whole bunch of stuff was happening on the civil rights front. So, it only took me two or three years at Huntingdon to get involved in the middle of the fray up there by meeting Dr. King and Mrs. Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon and the people that made the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And they finished the work of getting me involved directly in the civil rights movement.

Tell me about the first time you met Dr. King.

The first time that I met him, personally, was after we were given an assignment in a sociology course to study the racial problem. I went with four other students from our sociology class to federal court so that we could introduce ourselves to Dr. King, and we could talk to him about our paper. That was the first time that I met him. We went to federal court where he was on trial along with the New York Times and a whole bunch of other people in Montgomery. We had a conversation with him at the federal court building because, in those days, you had to very delicately organize and plan any interaction that white Southerners would have with black Southerners. We asked Dr. King if we could come to the workshop at Reverend Abernathy’s Church where he was going to speak, and a lot of the people from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who were doing the lunch counter sit-ins, would be there. And so that was how I met Dr. King. My first impression of him was that he was very gracious to take up some time with us. I found out later that he spent a major amount of time mentoring and spending time with young people. He was very patient with us. He was already becoming a very great, famous person, but he would still spend some time with us and help us with our paper.

I understand that when you first started working with SNCC, some of the black students involved in it were a little skeptical. Tell me about that.

Yes, they were skeptical and very rightfully so. At that point, I was a very rough character from small-town Alabama and Mobile, and I was very Southern. They were intrigued and a little bit suspicious about why I wanted to work with SNCC. It was obvious that it was an organization led by and for young black women and men. Why did I, a white cat from lower Alabama, want to be associated with a black outfit like SNCC? So, that’s what they were suspicious about. The film Son of the South makes a big and interesting issue out of that. It’s obvious that the young black people would be suspicious of a young white person that comes from the lower Alabama and says that his daddy was in the Ku Klux Klan and his granddaddy was in the Ku Klux Klan.

Eventually, they came to see that you were earnest in your endeavors and you became a field secretary for SNCC.

I became the first white Southerner to be a field secretary. A lot of people think there was only one field secretary, but we  started with about 12 or 14 field secretaries. Everybody that didn’t work in the national headquarters was called a field secretary. So, that was the lowest rung on the SNCC staff hierarchy.

You started to go around to white schools to talk about the civil rights movement and voting rights. You weren’t well received. Tell me about one of your first speaking engagements.

One of the very early campuses that I went to was Huntingdon College because I still had contacts at Huntingdon, and I want to stay in touch with those contacts. It turned out that Huntingdon College was so fearful of my work—and the police, George  Wallace and Al Lingo were so fearful of more young people joining the Freedom Movement—that I was arrested when I went back. On one of my early visits back to the campus, I was arrested, and I was banished from the campus. Later on, they became so fearful of my traveling and talking to white students in the South about joining the Freedom Movement, that they banished me from the state of Alabama—legally. They did a trial and the verdict was that I would henceforth be banished from the state of Alabama, and it would be a jailable offense just to cross the state line into Alabama.

And so what did you do?

I continued to work out of the office in Atlanta, and whenever I needed to come to Alabama, I would drive to the state line and then violate the banishment order. I would enter Alabama. I was quite certain, and my lawyers assured me, that they probably never would have charged me with violating that rule because then it would automatically be able to be appealed to the  Supreme Court. Everybody knew, any resident of the United States could not be banished from traveling into another state. It was obviously opposed to the Constitution and the federal law. They didn’t intend to actually prosecute anybody in that case, but it was an intimidation measure by the police state of Alabama.

So, through this time you endured multiple beatings and nearly 20 arrests. I understand that has left some psychological and physical issues for you to deal with.

Yes. I have some physical issues, but the mental ones are more vexing than the physical ones. Part of the mental one is some brain damage that affected my sequencing so that I have to stop and think through a whole procedure to get the sequencing correct. But the post-traumatic stress is stressful for me and also for my partner, my wife. I have a very strong startle response, so we have to have a way of operating in the house so that one of us doesn’t creep up behind the other. It could make you jump across the room. But we do approach it with a great deal of humor because when she makes me jump about 10 feet, we both laugh.

As the tide changed regarding civil rights, did you ever have anyone who treated you poorly, or beat you, come back and apologize or say, “Hey, I was on the wrong side of this?”

Yes. Because of the film now, and because of the notoriety, a lot of people are getting in touch with me from the old days. They were on the other side, and now they switched sides and they are on the side of inclusiveness and equality rather than on the Klan side. I always think that maybe for all the ones that have come forward, there must be some other ones out there who also have been changed or had some influence over their lives. Not just by me, but by the others of the Huntingdon five as well. If they felt then the way they feel now, we would have had a group of not just five—we would have had a group of 25 or 30 people. More people have switched from the Klan side to the inclusive side than the other way around.

You moved around a good bit starting in the late 60s. Where did you go?

Yes, I did move around quite a bit because after the SNCC years, about 1967, we moved from Atlanta to New Orleans to start the GROW Project—grassroots organizing work. I lived in New Orleans and worked on that project up until around the end of the 1970s. Then I moved to Washington, DC, for a while to see if I could get work as a labor organizer. And then I got involved in filmmaking with some people who were making movies about the civil rights movement. Specifically, they were making the movie about Miss Ella Baker called Fundi. That was the first movie that I worked on about civil rights. And then for the next 10 years, I worked on films and movies around different parts of the world, Mexico, Cuba, Mozambique, all over the world. I worked on quite a few movies in various capacities, and when we started working on Son of the South, I knew a little bit about what was involved in filmmaking. And I know that it’s an amazing thing that Barry Alexander Brown and Spike Lee were able to make the movie that they made here in Alabama.

In 2008, you published your book, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek (NewSouth Books). What motivated you or inspired you to write a book so many years after these experiences?

Well, the main inspiration would be James Foreman, who was the executive director of SNCC. One of his mantras was to ‘write it down, make a record.’ So we always had to keep records for the FBI and for making our atrocity reports. Then as SNCC began to wane at the end of the 1960s, Foreman specifically reminded the veterans, especially the early ones, to write down their history of work with SNCC. That’s what I started doing—making notes and keeping the history. A lot of that we did through the Student Voice, which was our newspaper. The early staff of SNCC were all trained as photographers and trained to write proper news stories. So, we had some journalistic training and some photography training. We did articles in the Student Voice. Everybody had his or her own byline and if you had a photo in the Student Voice, you had a photo credit, too. That’s the way we kept the record. When I was finished with the GROW Project in 1980 and I started working on films and movies, I met Barry Brown in New York. We were both Alabama boys working in movies in some ways. We became friends and I began to learn his story about growing up in Alabama and going to Lanier High School in Montgomery. I told him all of my stories about the early SNCC days, and he decided that it would make a great movie. We started working on the script back in the late 1970s. Our first draft of the script is dated 1987. So, we started working on the movie script before the book was published. The book wasn’t published until 2008.

Was it difficult emotionally to write the book and to relive some of those more violent and emotionally difficult events? Or was it cathartic?

It was both. I was very lucky to have Connie Curry working with me as an editor on the book. After we had about 400 pages or so, which was already 50 or 100 pages more than we could use, she said, “You are avoiding the painful parts of your story. Now get to it. You have to write about the painful parts.” And that’s when I began to write about the torture in the prison with Chuck McDew and some of the other emotionally difficult experiences. I was as dispassionate as possible about writing those parts of the book. Books are very important, though, and people should write their stories.

In terms of those painful parts, at any point did you think, “This is it. I’m done. I’m going to die. These people are going to kill me.” You probably thought that multiple times, but is there one that sticks out?

It did happen a number of times, but the first time was the most informative to me. That was in McComb, Mississippi, Oct. 4, 1961. I was convinced before that day was over that they were going to kill me. They were going to murder me on my first demonstration. This was after the demonstration was underway. I was beaten on the steps of the city hall in McComb, Mississippi. There was a big mob, and I thought they were going to kill me in the street. When that first happened, I didn’t have time to think about anything other than trying to save myself from being carried out into the street where they would have beaten me to death. So, I was holding on to the rail down the steps of the city hall. I was able to keep from being carried out into the crowd and then I was taken into the town hall where I was turned over by the police chief to members of the mob. They took me out of McComb. I think with the intention of hanging me. They had a hangman’s rope. They took me to the tree and they said, “We’re going to hang you with this rope from that limb right there.” I didn’t think there was any power on earth that was going to keep them from doing that. I was very calm because I thought that I was about to die. That’s a common story. A lot of civil rights workers have reached that point where they think they’re about to die, and they’re very, very peaceful because they’ve already made that decision that if necessary, they would die for the cause. Growing up as a Christian, when you’re about to face death and you don’t die, the first thing you think of is, ‘Oh, maybe the deity has something more that I’m supposed to do.’ So that was part of the lesson of McComb in 1961—that I had more to do.

You mentioned the fear in the South before and during the civil rights era—people didn’t speak out because they were afraid of what the mob would do if they got out of line. Do you see some of that happening now?

I do see something happening like that now. And that’s people who have some kind of ambition, either of power or money or both. They see an extreme danger in alienating not just Trump but the Trump base. I think that there is a base of about 20 to 30 percent of the American public that would like to do away with democracy and have an autocracy of some kind. I think that they either don’t recognize it themselves, or they wouldn’t admit it. But the mobs that attacked the House and the Senate of our Capitol Building on January 6 were not out of work poor Southern people. They were middle class, bourgeois doctors, lawyers, police and professionals of various kinds. That’s what’s concerning. That’s what’s worse to me—that there’s that percentage of our democratic country who apparently want to do away with democracy and have a dictator. I think we’re lucky that the charlatan that came to their rescue was not more intelligent. The charlatan they got was very limited as a human being. How was he able to hoodwink so many reasonable, intelligent and educated people?

Do you think that this generation of young people are exponentially more open-minded, inclusive and tolerant?

Yes, I think so. That’s one of the powers that the young people have is that they have not been crippled or corrupted by a lot of what they should have been crippled and corrupted by. Earlier generations have had to just accept what they were told, but this young generation, they don’t accept what they’re told. They were told to be concerned about people’s sexual identities, and they were told to be concerned about people’s racial backgrounds and all of that. They are not concerned about those things to the extent the older people are. So they’re free from some of the sickness that the older people have.

Pamela and I have the great honor and privilege of working with a number of youth groups that are being trained for future leadership. So we worked with Shirts Across America. They are one of the best training platforms for young people—educating them about the black struggle and training them to be leaders. These young leaders are going to be active for the next 70 to 80 years. Part of that is for them to learn the black history that’s not taught to them in our schools—as well as women’s history, labor history and all of the progressive histories that we’re not taught in school. Even when they teach the civil rights movement, they teach it in a certain way so that the teeth are taken away from Dr. King’s message. They obfuscate what went on in the civil rights movement.

Do you have any advice for white people who want to be allies but don’t know where to start?

Yes, I do. I’m not sure that it’s the best advice that we’ll come up with, but we think about that every day. The movie that we did is primarily about white allyship for the black freedom struggle because the black freedom struggle and racism are at the core of all of the ills that our society faces. So, that’s what we concentrate on. We do it through Shirts Across America, we do it with Project Power and we do it with Action Academy, which is for college students. We also do it with Project pilgrimage, which does tours of civil rights sites and historical places in the South. And we’re here in Alabama, working with the state of Alabama, on all of the museums, historical trails and all the civil rights tourism that they’re doing here in Alabama.

If you’re serious about being an active ally, you will be able to find something in your area that you can go to and become a part of a group. One is called SURGE (Showing up for Racial Justice). That’s in a lot of Southern communities, and it’s specifically for white allies and specifically for people who haven’t done anything before but who want to do something now. So you get in touch with SURGE. Here in Alabama, get in touch with us, Bob and Pamela, and we will have plenty of things for you to do. There are lots of volunteers that are working on things here in Alabama, and some very exciting projects that we’re going to be doing for the next 36 months. So there’s something for them to do, but the main thing to know is that you are needed as an ally, and people will welcome you if you come as an ally, but be prepared to stay for the long run because nobody wants somebody that wants to be an ally for a little while then go back to being a white person.

I wanted to ask a little bit about your Christian faith and how it sort of led you to your life’s work. Also, what are your thoughts on the growth of the Christian right or evangelical movement?

Yes. I would like to comment on that because my early impetus to get involved in the civil rights movement was that I understood that what Jesus was saying was that if you see somebody who is hurting and being hurt, you’re supposed to go to their aid. You’re not supposed to add to their hurt. And people who are Christians, especially evangelical Christians like my father was, for them to use their evangelical Christian religion against people and to add more misery and hurt to people who are already miserable and being hurt—that’s not acceptable to me, but I have to realize that they think what they’re doing is right. Very few of them know that they’re doing the wrong thing and go ahead and do it. That was part of my relationship with George Wallace because George Wallace was raised as a moderate progressive Methodist, and he cynically decided to be a racist. He cynically decided to do that. So, I know that it’s possible for a lot of other evangelical Christian Southerners to cynically use that church structure and that church message to divide and hurt people.

You’ve had this big life that you condensed down into a book, trying to get as much of it in there as you can. Then you condensed that book down into a movie. Is there anything that you feel got missed or that you wish you would have elaborated on more or illuminated more?

I can’t think of anything like that, but one of the interesting reactions to the movie is that almost everybody says that the movie ended when it was about to get started. So people want to hear more of the story. It’s the nature of boiling something down to movie size. A book is powerful, and then a movie is exponentially more powerful than that. So that all of a sudden you become a celebrity, which is different from what you really are. That’s what I am personally going through right now. A lot of people are reacting to the movie because it’s powerful and they’re making me into something that I’m not, which is okay up to a certain extent.

You mentioned you are writing another book. What will this one be about?

It’s the second volume of the memoir. We don’t even have a working title right now. We’re just writing it because the movie ends, really at the beginning of the book. So we have the rest of the book. And then the first book was published in 2008, so it basically ends at the beginning of the 21st century and a lot has happened with me since that time. So, that’s what we’re writing about now—what’s been going on since the end of the Wrong Side of Murder Creek. We’re bringing it up to date.

What brought you back to Alabama? After all of your travels, why did you choose to settle back in Alabama?

Well, first of all, is the trope that happens with old people who grew up in the South and then went somewhere else to work. There’s a huge urge to move back home, and we both had that urge. Pamela has lived in Fairhope at least twice during her life and had raised a lot of her children here in Baldwin County and lower Alabama. So, she wanted to come back to what she remembered about Fairhope and the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. And I wanted to come back, so we talked about it for several years and we moved back here for a little while, and then we moved away and then we came back. Now, we’re permanently settled in Alabama.


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