Son of the South: New film explores a white man’s role in the fight for civil rights

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MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — For six decades, Gulf Coast native Bob Zellner has been on the front lines of the civil rights movement. During the 1960s, Zellner, who is white, repeatedly risked his life in the struggle, working alongside some of the most well-known activists of that era.

A new movie will tell the story about a piece of Zellner’s history in the fight for civil rights. ‘Son of the South,’ which is being produced by Spike Lee, is based on Zellner’s memoir, ‘The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.’

Zellner, a white Methodist of Jewish descent, became involved in the civil rights movement as a student at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. He’d grown up in East Brewton in Escambia County, Al, Daphne, and Mobile, graduating from Mobile’s Murphy High School in 1957.

At Huntingdon, he was assigned a project on race. That led he and other students to an interracial meeting at First Baptist Church. Also in attendance at that meeting were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Police attempted to arrest the students but they were able to get out the back of the church. But Huntingdon officials heard of the incident. Four of the students resigned from the school, but Zellner stayed on and eventually graduated.

While there, he also joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) becoming the group’s first white field secretary. It put him on a decades-long journey pursuing and preserving equal rights.

Zellner told News 5, “I guess my role was to show that you could get involved in the front lines of the civil rights movement and survive.”

His involvement on the front-lines of the movement made him a target of racist mobs.

“Sometimes I was picked out to be arrested and thrown in jail and beaten,” he said.

His involvement in the struggle for civil rights may have seemed unlikely to some at the time. Both his father and grandfather had been members of the KKK. Once his father became a minister, he broke from the Klan and suffered for it.

Zellner said, “I never understood as a young person the hurt that he went through when he was disowned by his own mother and father.”

Zellner’s work led him to places like McComb, MS, where a group of high school students marched to protest the murder of a fellow student. Zellner joined the group and as the only white man there, was attacked and beaten by a group of white men. To understand his and other’s commitment to the movement, you have to understand this:

“Almost nobody worked with SNCC who wasn’t prepared to die,” he said. “That’s my experience with the freedom rides. I was involved in the first freedom ride and the last official freedom ride. And I was so amazed at people who were willing to risk and give their life if necessary to do away with segregation.”

With those violent days of the past in contrast, we asked Zellner for his take on the current nationwide protests over racial justice.

“The first take on it is, we have a freedom song called ‘Freedom is a Constant Struggle.’ So you can’t just get to a point and say ‘oh, boy–all done–forget about it–go on about our business.’ Because the same thing comes around again,” he said.

Zellner says historians call this time the third American Reconstruction; the first happening after the Civil War; the second during the Civil Rights Movement. But this time, Zellner says he sees a chance for deep, systemic, long-lasting change.

At 81, Zellner continues to lecture on civil rights, although some of his engagements have been curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Son of the South’ is expected to be released later this year.

Here are more excerpts from our interview with Bob Zellner.

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