Dr. Bob Zellner, born in 1939, plans to return this week to Mobile, where he was the son of the minister of Broad Street Methodist Church in the 1950s. He graduated from Murphy High School in 1957 and Huntingdon College in 1961. Sadly today, few Mobilians recognize his name, or know of his involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and ‘70s or his continuing quest for racial justice ever since, including the current problems facing Baltimore.
He and fellow Civil Rights worker Constance Curry wrote “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement” (New South Books, 2008), which received laudatory reviews upon its release. The book describes his growing up in Brewton where Murder Creek separates Brewton from East Brewton, where his father pastored a working class congregation, much as he did later in Mobile. It also describes his work in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Civil Rights movement in general. Zellner, who received his Ph.D. in History from Louisiana State University, is largely forgotten in Mobile, despite his being one of the first white leaders of SNCC. As an activist, he was arrested in towns and cities in the Deep South some 18 times, and beaten often, all in his determination to destroy the evil of racial segregation that was integral to Southern culture.
He led the struggle in communities in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1973, New York independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin made a feature-length movie, “Woodcutters of the Deep South,” about Zellner’s organizing the poor white and black pulp-wood cutters of the Piney Woods regions of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Now Zellner and Rogosin’s son and his film crew are returning to interview the people involved in that effort a half century ago. Specifically, they will interview the Rev. Tony Allgood, the Methodist minister who is today the Director of the United Methodist Inner City Mission headquartered in the Broad Street Methodist Church building, once pastored by Zellner’s father. Like Zellner, Allgood is white with a long history of working for social justice, among many other missions, on Mobile’s south side. He was a co-worker with Zellner in his efforts to organize the pulp-wood cutters.
Also slated for interview is Mobilian Steve Martin, and perhaps others in the area from the original film who are still living. The goal is to release an updated version of the film that will focus on changes the original members have observed since those days. They named their organization GROW for “Grass Roots Organizing Work” or alternately, “Get Rid Of Wallace.” They tackled rural poverty, bad schools and health care among both black and white pulp-wood workers and their families.
Continuing that effort, Zellner recently went on a march to Washington to protest the closing of rural hospitals in states like Alabama that have declined to participate in “Obamacare.” He traveled with the Republican mayor of the North Carolina town Wilson, where he now lives. Both men agreed that medical care is neither a Democratic or Republican issue, but a basic human right.
James Zellner is a good Southern boy, or old man today, whose life ironically was built on his family’s very traditional Southern values. His grandfather, uncles and father were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and thought themselves good Methodists at the same time. His father painfully broke with the family’s long tradition of Klan membership and activities after he worked in Europe during World War II helping Jewish refugees escape the Nazis. The only English speakers he knew then were a group of black gospel singers also trying to help the Jews. That interaction caused Zellner to reject his family’s racism as fundamentally wrong and un-Christian, a realization that nearly caused his nervous breakdown and certainly divided the family irrevocably after he returned home.
In the years after the war, Zellner encouraged his son to persevere as the young man questioned Southern racial practices and then decided to work to change them. Bob Zellner joined SNCC in 1961 and stayed with it almost until it sputtered out in 1967. Over the years he met and worked alongside virtually all the famous names in the movement, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Virginia Durr, Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael. He helped organize the March on Washington, made famous by Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He sat with President Obama on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. Over the years he has put his life on the line for civil rights and social justice.