“My grandfather and father were in the Ku Klux Klan. Other family members were in the Ku Klux Klan auxiliaries. I was one of the first white southerners to work with the Civil Rights Movement. I am always glad when Southerners switch sides if they have been a segregationist or a hater. We are at one of those moments. I was so impressed with the number of white people at the demonstrations in Mobile. One guy held a cardboard sign that said ‘white people for black justice.’ Sone of us have been fighting for that for a long time. I was proud to be a Mobilian.
I went to Murphy High School and graduated in 1957. It was highly unpopular for anybody to say that they were for integration. Autherine Lucy being the first black student to go to the University of Alabama made a big impact on me. I was a junior in high school and realized that I felt different from the majority of my peers. They said she was destroying the university. When I said it was a good idea because she was destroying segregation, they told me not to let anyone else hear this. It intrigued me they feared if they didn’t go along the majority rule they would be ostracized from the community.
My father was ostracized from his family and community when he quit the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham. His mother and father disowned him and his brothers never spoke to him again. My father became a Methodist minister and believed you can’t be a racist and a Christian. He couldn’t reconcile what he was taught as a Klansman, as a Klan organizer, and with the gospel of Jesus talking about welcoming the stranger. I got involved because my father preached the social gospel that brings us together. It means that we treat everyone like we want to be treated and love our neighbor. Daddy said getting beat up or having a cross burned in your yard is a very small consequence when you are fighting for the right thing. He developed a reputation in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist church for being a radical integrationist. He organized ministers who felt like him into the Andrew Sledd Study Club. My first actions of organizing were in the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Dauphin Way Methodist Church in Mobile.
But there were times I was considered a racist and was recruited by the Klan. Murphy High School was so large that we had fraternities in and somehow I pledged the fraternity that had the most Klan contacts. They knew my dad was in the Klan and had seen an interview on WKRG of me speaking out against the city’s new curfew on teenagers. Shortly after that, they kidnapped me and took me for the ride. They used fraternity brothers to get recruits into cars with the Klan leaders. They would insist that you participate in the violence and then you became complicit. It was an involuntary induction into a gang. My night we went to Prichard looking for innocent black people to hurt. My friend stuck a pole out of the car and I heard it strike a man with a stomach-churning thud. They handed the pole to me, but I wasn’t able to do it. They realized I wasn’t Klan material and let me go. However, I was glad to go through that experience because then I knew what people my age were going through at that time.
I went to college at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. One of our assignments was to research racial problems but it was understood that research was to be done in the library. Two of my best friends who I graduated with from Murphy were also in that class. We wanted to do fieldwork and interview Dr. Martin Luther King. We had already met Dr. King and asked him to help us meet students at Alabama State. We kept moving forward despite warnings from the college staff and the Klan. We attended meetings with Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy. We met Rosa Parks and she told me ‘Bob, when you see something wrong, you have to take action, you have to do something. Someday, something is going to happen in front of you and you’re going to have to take a stand. You can’t study this forever.’
Dr. King warned us of the dangers and one night helped us escape from a church when the police were coming for us. When young people from SNCC came down for a workshop with Dr. King, I wanted to meet them, so I went, too. They were charismatic, strong in faith and didn’t fear death. John Lewis was there. Later when SNCC was looking for a white Southerner to join its staff as a campus traveler to interpret the student movement to other young Southerners, I was hired.
I went with SNCC to marches across the South and was arrested with everyone else. During a march in McComb, Mississippi, I heard my name and then ‘Zellner I will kill you.’ I had never been to Mississippi and no one should have known my name. I saw it was the captain of the basketball team at Huntington. He was also a Klansman who hated me. Chains and pipes came from nowhere and our people were getting hit. A small mob of white men gathered around me. Every time someone would hit me, the cops would wink or look the other way. I clutched the Bible and other members of SNCC moved to my sides to absorb some of the blows. None of us attempting to fight back. I remember the sounds of billy clubs the cops used as they thudded onto the heads of those around me. I thought how can one human do this to another, especially with everyone watching? They marched our whole crew inside the courthouse, but the police left me with my little mob. They police had no intention of protecting me. I took hold of the railing that went along the steps into City Hall, hoping to ascend. They were determined to detach me and I was determined not to let go. They grabbed my legs and pulled. They attempted to pry my fingers loose. One man put his fingers into my eye sockets, going for my eyeball. Grown men were piling on top of me. I reached the top step and a big brown boot crashing into my head again and again was the last thing I remember. The next thing I was aware of was the police chief saying, ‘I should have let them kill you’.
Stokely Carmichael said nonviolent direct action doesn’t work unless your opponents have some conscience. Some understanding of right from wrong. But in some of those situations, police officers are relieved from regular responsibility. It was perfectly all right to injure a man and give him pain. They had the opportunity to kill me.
I was in Greenwood, Mississippi for the Summer of ’64. That was Freedom Summer and my wife Dottie worked with Julian Bond in SNCC’s communications department. They moved the whole operation to Greenwood. The first part of my summer going with Rita Schwerner to investigate the murder and disappearance of our civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and her husband Mickey Schwerner. We confronted Governor Johnson of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama on the front steps of the governor’s mansion in Jackson. We met with President Johnson about the murders, but when Rita told him not enough was being done, he turned on his heel and disappeared. That summer also brought outsiders who supported the movement to Mississippi. Sydney Portier, Harry Belafonte, and Marlon Brando came to Greenwood and I got to know them as I escorted them around.
Born and bred Southerners have to realize that we are racist just from growing up in this culture. It is deep in our fiber. When you say there’s not a racist bone in your body, then you don’t understand racism. It has been in our politics since before we were even a nation. Each one of us has to take an honest look inside ourselves and at our systems at what we can change. But I have been more encouraged by the actions taken this year in the South than I have been in a long time.
Bob Zellner, Part One
(The McComb story was taken from Bob’s book, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek. The book was recently made into the movie, Son of the South, coming out this fall. Spike Lee is the executive producer and it is directed by Barry Alexander Brown.)