Bob Zellner is a civil rights foot soldier. He marched with Dr. King, with Rosa Parks, with John Lewis.
Bob Zellner joined our group ostensibly to provide some historic perspective. He brought humor, clarity and inspiration.
On a cold day in Mississippi, the roads covered in sheet ice, we stayed off the bus. Instead, we gathered in a conference room of our hotel for a long, warm session of what we called Zellner University.
Over the years in the movement, Bob Zellner has been attacked, beaten into unconsciousness, had his life threatened, been arrested 18 times. But at 76, he is still marching and still singing. As he told us one night, as he made his way to the front of a church, rather than linger in the back, “that’s the thing about the SNCC guys, we always want to be up front, where the action is”
Bob Zellner was the first white field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was one of the most important grass roots groups of the civil rights movement. SNCC registered voters, led the freedom rides and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
Zellner was born in the south and came from a long line of Methodist preachers and KKK members. During World War II, his father had an epiphany while helping the Jewish underground alongside black gospel singers in the Soviet Union. Returning home, he raised his family outside the Klan.
Bob Zellner pushed even further, exploring the civil rights philosophy during his college years as the movement was emerging in Alabama and across the south. He joined SNCC in 1961. Later, with his wife and fellow foot soldier Dorothy Zellner, he created GROW, an organization training rural whites and black in social justice organizing tactics.
He wrote a book about his life, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement,” in 2008.