Unlikely Civil Rights icon speaks
Dr. Bob Zellner, a white Southerner who played a part in the Civil Rights Movement, shared his story at Wake Forest University last week.
Zellner was born and raised in lower Alabama, or “L.A.,” as he called it. He moved to Wilson, N.C. last year to continue his activism. His memoir, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek,” is being made into a Spike Lee-produced movie.
He was an unlikely civil rights champion; both his father and grandfather were in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), whose members Zellner call “fundamentalist terrorists.” Zellner said his father quit the Klan when he was a child, causing estrangement between Zellner’s father and members of the family still in the KKK. Near the time he graduated from college, Zellner began taking an active role in the fight for equal rights for African Americans, although he feared doing so would mean reprisals against him and his parents.
“The best antidote to both fundamentalism and terrorism is knowledge and diversity,” Zellner told the racially diverse crowd of mostly college students.
He first became familiar with the Civil Rights Movement when he was a senior at at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. An advanced sociology class assignment required him to write about the racial situation in the South. The five members of his all-white class wanted to talk to black civil rights leaders for the project, although their professor warned them they could be arrested for violating segregation laws.
The class took their chances. They met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a local church. He was there to preach at a civil rights organizing workshop. The threat of arrest became real for the students when police arrived and surrounded the church – a practice meant to intimidate that was often employed by Southern law enforcement officials.
Zellner said that King allowed the white students to exit the church undetected. He told them he would exit through the church’s main door to create a distraction that would allow them to leave through a rear door.
Zellner said as the students waited for King to exit the church, Rosa Parks, whom Zellner described as a “silent, quiet woman of granite,” reached over and touched him on the elbow.
“Mrs. Rosa Parks said, ‘Bob, when you see something wrong, you’re going to have to do something about it. You cannot study it forever; you have to take action.’” Zellner recalled. “And sure enough, that was the commission to me, a little white boy born in L.A., Lower Alabama, to participate in this movement, to not live a life that I would be judged not to have lived, but to participate in the issues of my time.”
Zellner and the other students did not escape the episode without consequences. School administrators asked them to resign for disgracing the school. The state attorney general told them they had fallen under Communist influence. The Klan burned crosses outside their dorm. Zellner said all of this is when his true race relations education began.
Despite objections from some school officials, Zellner graduated in 1961 with the highest honors and went to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where he became a field secretary. Initially, Zellner said, some black members of the organization were suspicious of him because of his race. Suspicions evaporated on his first organizing job in Macon, Miss., when he said he was attacked by Klansmen who tried to kill him.
The terrifying experience didn’t deter him. His long career as an activist included 18 arrests in seven states and organizing an anti-racism project for the Southern Conference Educational Fund.
Zellner is still fighting for what he sees as right and just. During his lecture, he railed against Republicans for relying on a “Southern strategy” of using racism to win Southern votes.
Zellner said though racism persists, there is now a resurgence in activism that he calls the “Third Reconstruction.” He said he’s working with the N.C. NAACP and a coalition of other organizations to establish a school in Wilson that will train organizers.
“There’s something new happening and the reason it’s happening is that it has to be done,” said Zellner. “…We don’t know what the next historical moment is going to be but I’m convinced you’re going to be a part of it.”
The crowd also heard from Rob Stephens, a Winston-Salem native who is the field director for the NC NAACP. Stephens, who, like Zellner, is white and began working as an activist when he was in high school, talked about some current NAACP initiatives.
Zellner’s story was both inspiring and enlightening to Wake senior Bentrice Jusu, who received the school’s 2012 Martin Luther
King Building the Dream Award for starting a non-profit (Both Hands) in her native Trenton, N.J. that uses the arts to engage inner city youth.
The art major said that she’d never heard a white person talk as openly about race as Zellner did.
“The issue of race is never brought up candidly,” she said. “It’s always swept under the rug and to hear him speak of it, it inspired me to continue my audacious attempt to confront this issue of racism, to talk about it regardless of who’s around because we’re all affected by it.”
Zellner’s lecture, sponsored by the WFU Office of Multicultural Affairs, is part of the school’s “Faces of Courage,” a series of events and initiatives designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of racial integration at Wake Forest.