Tag Archive | "Bob Zellner"

Struggling Together: Exhibit Looks at Blacks and Whites Fighting for Civil Rights

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By Marianna Levine


In honor of Black History month, the Eastville Heritage House on Hampton Road in Sag Harbor will feature an exhibition called “Partners in Progress” open every weekend in February. The exhibit highlights the cooperation between blacks and whites in the abolitionists and civil rights movements.  In light of the recent election and inauguration of America’s first African-American President, the exhibition’s curators, Beryl Banks and Kathy Tucker, wanted to acknowledge and celebrate the interracial collaborations that made Barack Obama’s Presidency possible.

Ms. Tucker explained, “Every year we put up an exhibit for Black History month and this year we wanted to show blacks and whites working together.  We wanted to show whites supporting our efforts, or struggle. We actually called it a struggle. So much of this is what we’ve lived through, we’re seniors, we remember the civil rights movement. We wanted to share this (information) with the community.”

The exhibit itself is rather humble although its message of personal struggle and sacrifice is not. The Eastville Historical Society is housed in what was a Sears & Roebuck mail order house, and therefore the exhibit has a cozy quality as one wanders from one small room to another while listening to songs from the civil rights movement playing over the house’s sound system. In a back room, one can hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech while looking at pictures of Barack Obama’s recent inauguration. There are pictures and newspaper articles displayed on black cloth boards of and about individuals who took a stand against racial oppression, sometimes losing their life in the pursuit of equality.


Of course there are recognizable names such as Rosa Parks that are featured, but there are also less well-known people honored, such as Viola Gregg Liuggo. She drove down to Selma to help with the Civil Rights Movement after being moved by news of the struggle on TV, only to be shot and killed by the KKK for her good intensions. Joanne Carter, a founding member of the historical society, specifies, “The purpose of most exhibits we do here is to bring to the public something that wasn’t necessarily known before.”

It is quite appropriate that Sag Harbor, and specifically the Eastville community Historical Society host such an exhibit since, according to Ms. Carter, it was, “one of the first fully integrated neighborhoods in the country.”

Ms Carter believes African-Americans arrived in the area either to work as freemen on the whaling ships or to escape on them to Canada as part of the Underground Railway.

There isn’t much historical documentation of Sag Harbor’s connection with the Underground Railway, however lack of documentation is a common challenge when studying the histories of minorities, the underprivileged, and women. Yet there are a few things that point to the plausibility of this commonly held belief within the Eastville community. For example, Sag Harbor and Shelter Island were home to a large Quaker population, and the Quakers started the Abolitionist movement in the 1830s. Ms Carter also points to the discovery of trap doors and hiding spaces underneath the altar and back pews of St. David’s church, Sag Harbor’s oldest church in its original site and a historically African-American church. 

In support of this exhibit, Civil Rights Activist, Bob Zellner will give a talk focusing on Obama’s politics of non-violence, and his mobilization of a new youth movement at Christ Episcopal Church on Sunday, February 22 at 2 p.m. Mr. Zellner, a Southampton resident, was a white southern college student in Montgomery, Alabama when the Civil Rights Movement started up around him. He was so moved and inspired by the young black students who were willing to take a stand and get beaten up for their belief in equality that he ended up becoming one of the founding staff members of SNCC. That was quite a departure for the son and grandson of KKK members.

Mr. Zellner recalls, “The leadership of SNCC was mostly young African American men and women from the south, but blacks and whites from the North and South worked together. I was unusual since I was a white southern. However all us southern had more in common than we had differences. We were culturally the same (regardless of race).”

Mr. Zellner comments, “What we did in the civil rights movement is now bearing fruit with the election of President Obama.”

And he noted that during the inauguration President Obama asked John Lewis, an early comrade of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stand up and be honored during his inaugural speech. 

Despite all the progress that has been made in terms of racial equality, Mr. Zellner stresses that younger generations still need to be taught the importance of critical thinking. Exhibits such as this one may help younger generations to remember the struggles of the past and continue to uphold interracial respect and equality for the future.


The Freedom Trail: Memoir recalls a movement

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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. 

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. 

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,  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.”