For decades, Southampton’s Bob Zellner has been a champion of civil rights. A speaker on the national circuit, locally, he has worked with members of the Shinnecock Nation, the Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP and Southampton’s anti-bias task force, to name a few.Â
But perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Bob Zellner is where he comes from. A native son of Alabama, he was one of the first white southerners who dared to get involve in the fight for civil rights in the early 1960s. It was a time in history when just sitting down to talk with a group of black people was enough to get a white boy arrested in Alabama.Â
Yet Zellner defied those who sought to intimidate him and in the fall of 1961, became the first white southerner to serve as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group cofounded by Julian Bond. In the next seven years, Zellner would be arrested 25 times working to improve the situation of blacks in America. Along the way, he met Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and other key figures in the civil rights movement.
Now, on the eve of a presidential election that just might see an African-American taking the highest office in the country,Â Zellner is releasing a memoir about growing up in the south and his rejection of values that, as a white southerner, he was expected to embrace.
“I had it in me for a while,” says Zellner on his decision to write the book. “I was keeping a diary on the evolution of the campaign starting a year and a half or so ago in Selma with Obama and Hillary and Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel and all the principals of the Democratic side of the election.”
“Obama pointed out in his speech in Selma that ‘My campaign is standing directly on the shoulders of the civil rights movement and this is a sacred spot,’” adds Zellner. “I’m so delighted with what we did 40 or 50 years ago. I’m feeling a lot of good about what we did.”
This Saturday at 6 p.m., Zellner will be at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor (290 Main Street) to read from “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.” The book was written with Constance Curry and includes a foreword by Bond.
Zellner is both amazed and pleased that he has lived to see the day when an African-American is a top candidate for president. Equally thrilling to him is the fact the Democratic party’s other leading contender this year was a woman. When asked how he managed to embrace tolerance growing up in rural Alabama, Zellner responds, “Well, I think part of it was intellectual curiosity. Another part was that my father had been through so much — being raised in a Klan family in Birmingham. In his early ministry he converted from the Klan to a believer in true brotherhood.”
Zellner’s father, James, was a Methodist minister. While working as a missionary in Russia in the 1930s, Zellner formed close friendships with black southerners who were there on missions of their own. When he returned home, he renounced his Klan membership and Zellner’s mother tore up the white robes to make Sunday school shirts for her five sons.
“I think that was one of the things I had great luck about — I was not taught racism at home,” says Zellner. “I think in all parts of the country, if you’re interested in having national, religious and racially ethnic diversity in your life, you have to take steps to make sure it happens or else you’ll live in a monochromatic world.”
“By the time I graduated in 1961 I had made the decision to do what I could to make a difference,” says Zellner who sought out SNCC. “The people in the movement were so inspiring they drew you in to something you knew was going to happen.”