Civil Rights Foot Soldier
From a family line of KKK members, Bob Zellner became one of the first white southerners to engage in the early civil rights movement. He organized sit-ins, rallies, investigations and speeches from Missouri to Massachusetts. Along his journey, Zellner was insulted, violently attacked, beaten unconscious, and arrested over 18 times. Yet even now in his 70’s, Bob stands fast for democracy, equality and justice.
Zellner’s story starts about as far as you can get from where he has ended up. He was born into the family of a Methodist preacher and school teacher on April 5, 1939. His father, uncles and grandfather were robe wearing members of the Ku Klux Klan. However, Bob’s childhood took a unique turn when he was quite young. Bob’s father, James traveled to Europe to help support the Jewish underground during the Nazi occupation. Isolated from English speakers for months, Bob’s father stumbled across a group of black gospel singers who were also supporting the Jewish underground. As they lived, encouraged and worked together as equals throughout the Russian winter, James realized that the racist beliefs he was raised with were no longer beliefs he wished to hold. When Bob’s father returned he split from the KKK and chose to raise his children outside of the KKK influence.
By high school Bob began forming his own opinions on race and equality following the expulsion of Autherine Lucy (a black student) from the University of Alabama. Bob’s poorly formed ideas on equal access to education didn’t make him popular with his classmates or their parents.
Bob Zellner’s first steps into the civil rights movement would come later as a student at the all-white Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. His senior Sociology assignment prodded the class to use library research to find solutions to racial problems. Bob and his four close friends and classmates decided to gather information from the white supremacists as well as a Civil Rights meeting at an all-black college. Attending the meeting brought with it many consequences, including fierce warnings from his professor, anger and torment from other students, and a stern warning from Alabama’s Attorney General suggesting they were “falling under communist influence.”
Despite the reprimands, Bob and his friends felt there was more to the story and continued learning about the purpose and need for the civil rights movement. Bob met privately with Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy, Rosa Parks and others before taking the greater risk of attending a public Civil Rights meeting surrounded by the media, police and state investigators.
“Bob, when you see something wrong, you’re going to have to do something about it. You can’t study it forever.” – Rosa Parks
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would later ask Bob to become their first white field secretary. SNCC was just starting out as a movement of youth who took nonviolent action against segregated facilities. While Bob was mentored by SNCC leaders, such as James Foreman and Julian Bond, he supported the movement in any way possible. He started with sweeping floors as he began learning how to organize demonstrations and educate others on tactics of nonviolent resistance. During the first few years five of Zellner’s SNCC colleagues were lynched and killed by white supremacists.
Bob helped SNCC organize in tension-filled hot-spots across southern states, often facing fierce criticism from the white community and initial distrust from the black community. In 1966 SNCC organized a meeting in McComb, Mississippi to organize around the murder of a black voter registration worker. As a bold and somewhat naive 21 year old, Bob had no idea that his presence on the City Hall steps would infuriate the police and the crowd to violence. While the FBI looked on and took notes, the mob screamed out that they would kill him. Soon the on-lookers beating Bob and the others with bats, pipes and chains until they were unconscious. Bob was taken out of town to be lynched, but his kidnappers were worried they would be too easily identified and decided to put him in a makeshift jail.
“It took a special brand of commitment and courage to do this work, and Bob never lack for either.” – Julian Bond
Over the course of his life Bob would be attacked and beaten many times. He would also become well acquainted with jails and detention facilities as well as the torture tactics of police. He learned to pack light, often carrying only a book and a toothbrush, two items he might be allowed to keep while in jail. Bob would be arrested over 18 times in seven states, at times needing black lawyers to represent him because all of the white lawyers would refuse, viewing him as a “disgrace to the race.”
With a strong belief that the unjust laws and bigoted practices in the South were hurting not only blacks but whites as well, Bob boldly continued as an agent of change. The Civil Rights movement grew and so did the backlash from white supremacists. Many SNCC members would half-joke that it was “open season on civil rights workers.” Whenever Bob organized in Alabama he was followed by men in dark glasses at all times. Even while attending his grandmother’s funeral, Bob and his family members were harassed by Governor George Wallace’s goons.
“After all of that brutal history [McComb, Albany, Birmingham, etc] and the accompanying worldwide news coverage, we still had to pressure the government to do something to protect the people in their right to vote – the simplest and most basic right of a democracy.” – Bob Zellner.
While working with SNCC, Bob would fall in love with Dorothy “Dottie” Miller, a white member of the Congress for Racial Equity (CORE) and later SNCC. The two would get married in 1963. Bob and Dottie continued with SNCC, including coordinating fundraising events with the help of Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Marlon Brando and Lena Horne.
A few years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Bob and Dottie left SNCC, began raising two daughters and developed the GROW project. GROW was aimed at passing on their organizing expertise to rural whites and blacks suffering low wages, and poor schools, health care and housing.
Through the 80’s and 90’s Bob ran a small construction company and traveled as a lecturer passing on his memories and knowledge about promoting social justice. He continues to this day to live a life promoting social justice. In 2000, Bob was called to help negotiate a land dispute between the Shinnecock Reservation and New York developers, where he and the others were beaten by state troopers before being falsely arrested. Then, in April 2013, at the age of 74, Bob Zellner was again arrested, this time for participating in a protest against North Carolina’s recent restrictions to voting access.
“Brotherhood and sisterhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend”. – Bob Zellner
Bob Zellner’s overcame fear and community pressure to learn about and be involved with the Civil Rights movement. His incredible perseverance helped shape the course of history. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Bob’s life is that he hasn’t “retired.” He continues to inspire others to seek justice and equality.