Racism Revisited: Bob Zellner Speaks at CSUMB
March 1, 2011
About 175 people showed up at CSUMB's University Center 7pm Monday—the last day of Black History Month and the kick-off to the school's Diversity Days—to hear stories from the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement from Bob Zellner, longtime activist and author of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement. The audience heard not only stories of the conflagration between non-violent protest and venomous mob anger, but also instructive anecdotes about pushing for progress, humorous and harrowing asides about standing up for one's principles, a Q&A, and even a sing-along.
He was introduced to the assembly by Student Activities Coordinator Tim Bills, who quoted philosopher and writer George Santyana (“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”) and ascribed the night's speaker as one who sought “service, not the limelight”—though even that looks poised to change. Zellner has already conducted interviews and shoots, he said, for a coming segment on the Oprah Winfrey show in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, which sought to break the confines of Jim Crow laws that segregated restaurants and bus terminals. And Spike Lee is slated to release a theatrical film this year, thus far titled Son of the South, based on Zellner's book.
“My publisher keeps telling me, 'Hold up the book. Mention Spike Lee, mention Oprah,'” said Zellner, chuckling. He said he recognized half the audience—perhaps the older segment, including Jackie Craghead, who was honored with the local chapter of the NAACP's Presiden't Award last Saturday, and Ann Jealous, mother of CEO and President of the national NAACP Ben Jealous—and was hopeful that the rest, mostly students, he would get to know over the years. “I'm from L.A.,” he said. “Lower Alabama...the lower rings of hell.”
His story includes a grandfather and father who were both in the Ku Klux Klan, and an upbringing that portended nothing of the fight for racial equality that would occupy about 50 years of his life thus far.
“I never attended an integrated school until I was in college,” he said. “If we were meeting like this [in those days] we could be arrested.”
In a sociology class in the basement of a church, Zellner and his other white classmates first encountered a volley in the Civil Rights movement.
“We wanted to talk to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks for a paper. The teacher said 'It could get you arrested.' I was intrigued. We wrote to King and asked him if we could come see him. He wrote back and said 'You can come, but you might get arrested.' Well that's what my teacher said.”
They went, to the church of Rev. Ralph Abernathy in Montgomery, AL., home to early incarnations of the Civil Rights movement like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Freedom Rides, and where King also preached. The police came and surrounded the church to arrest Zellner and his fellow college classmates.
“I told Rev. King, 'You have to help us escape.' He said, 'You all go down to the basement, there's a door in the back. I'll go out the front door. If they rush me, you run for it.' Mrs. [Rosa] Parks, that granite saint of good will, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Bob. If you see something wrong in the world, you have to do something about it. You can't just keep studying it.'”
He said he would never forget the weight of that hand or the weight of those words.
He and his classmates, five white boys, ran through a black neighborhood to their dorms. Later that night the Klan burned a “38-foot” cross outside and threatened to come in and get the “communist”-influenced boys.
“This country was not at peace with itself,” he said. “There was one creed for the rest of the world, and another creed at home...How could we put ourselves up as harbingers of freedom if we had Bull Connor, segregation, lynchings? Sonny Kyle Livingston [acquitted of bombings and even a murder, despite confessions] we spoke to last week in Montgomery with a Oprah producer. An unreconstructed Klansman. Fifty years later he still carries a pistol. He showed it to us.”
Zellner talked about Mississippi Governor (and reported 2012 presidential candidate prospect) Haley Barbour's refusal to condemn legislation to create a commemorative license plate honoring KKK leader and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest; he’s since equivocated.
“Eleven percent of white voters in Alabama voted for Obama. That's how opposed they are to the idea of a black president. But at least there's that [11 percent]. That has to change. And young people, that's your job.”
He talked about the power of nonviolent movements, which found its way to Martin Luther King Jr. through a lineage from Henry David Thoreau (“For every 1,000 reformers hacking at the branches of injustice, there is one radical hacking at the roots”) and Mahatma Ghandi.
“Governments armed to the teeth can't stop it. Who would have thought that one vegetable vendor in Tunisia would get so fed up with his mistreatment that he would kill himself and spark a movement?” (That vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after being slapped, beaten and refused recourse by Tunisian government officials.)
Zellner recalled his first encounter with the organized lunch counter boycotts in the '60s. “As a college student, I was fascinated, inspired. [The black students] said, 'You will serve me or I will go to jail. If I go to jail, there are 10 others to take my place.'”
That inspiration carried him to his first SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) meeting in 1961 to protest the September ‘61 killing of a Herbert Lee, a black Mississippi farmer who, along with his friend Bob Moses, was encouraging black people to vote. A white legislator who claimed self defense shot Lee in the head with a rifle. (A witness, Louis Allen, claimed otherwise, and was himself murdered.) Zellner said he vacillated over the danger, finally deciding to do “what every person who joins SNCC does—take action.”
He joined their march. “A lone eyesore of a white boy marching to town hall.”
The danger, he soon discovered, was real. A mob surrounded the marchers and began beating them as the police passively watched. Bob Moses and another black man stood between the men beating Zellner, earning the wrath of the idle police officers, who beat them with their nightsticks.
“If you ever see someone get hit in the head with a nightstick, you'll see the skin splits, you'll see the bone, and a trickle of blood. It doesn't gush.”
The mob, now riled with violence and armed with baseball bats, called out for Zellner. Someone in the crowd gave him a Bible. He remembers his father saying “God helps those who help themselves.”
Zellner, who had trained in martial arts and ballet, used his strength and agility to latch onto the railing of the stairs and climbed up, hand-over-hand, while the mob tore at his clothes, hit him, and even tried to gouge his eye out. Luckily the “tough organ” would “thunk” back into his socket and wasn’t severed.
“Total out of body experience,” he said, almost fondly. “This is going to be the shortest civil rights career in history.”
Out of frustration, the mob piled onto him until only his head was exposed underneath the bodies and he remembered a boot kicking him over and over until he lost consciousness to the resolution that this would be his death. But it would serve as his rebirth.
“After that, I was like combat soldier. You never worried again about dying. You were past dying.” He recalled the words of Rosa Parks: “What are you living for?”
The answer that came to him: Something bigger than death.
“Take action!” he said, a fist punching up in the air.
He graciously indulged questions from the audience, ranging from black people's involvement (or lack thereof) in recent gay rights battles, including Proposition 8; restitution versus reparations; a legal inquiry about nullification (“How many governors,” he asked rhetorically, “who broke laws to stop integration were charged, convicted, spent time in jail? None.”); Texas history textbook revisionism; Planned Parenthood budget cuts; white privilege; immigration; and a student protest of tuition hikes to take place 11:30am Wednesday at CSUMB's Main Quad.
The event was taped by Hebbard Olsen of AMP, to be broadcast on the public access station at a later date.
Zellner led a brief and reverent couple of a cappella verses of “We Shall Overcome,” seemingly the entire audience on their feet and singing along, before stepping down from the podium and mixing among the people to talk one-on-one. It was then that it could be seen, a small button on his suit lapel of two hands clasped, one white and one black, over the word “peace.”