Late last week, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a major rewrite of the state’s election rules. In addition to limiting the use of drop boxes for ballots, the new legislation imposes stricter voter ID requirements, allows state takeovers of local elections and even bans handing out water to voters waiting in long lines.
President Joe Biden was quick to call the law “Jim Crow in the 21st Century,” offering a modern-day reference to legislation enacted in southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that codified racism.
And that’s a topic Bob Zellner knows something about.
Since he began working as a civil rights activist in his native Alabama in the early 1960s, Zellner, the son and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members, has remained vigilant and on the front lines in the fight against racism. As a result, over the course of the last half century, he has been beaten or arrested more times than he can count.
In 2013, Zellner, a former Southampton resident, was arrested in North Carolina, where he now lives. Notably, that arrest came during a protest against state legislation that would require voter photo identification and restrict early voting or same-day registration, tactics that civil rights groups have long argued suppress voter turnout among minorities and the disenfranchised.
But the activist’s long arrest record isn’t limited to southern states.
Back in February 2000, Zellner, then co-chair of the Southampton Anti-Bias Task Force, was arrested after showing up to ease tensions at a Shinnecock-led protest at the Parrish Pond development near what was then Southampton College. The details of the incident are shared in Zellner’s 2008 autobiography, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom movement.” In a chapter titled “Up South,” Zellner, a retired Long Island University professor, credits the presence of Southampton Press photographer Dana Shaw for stopping New York State troopers from breaking his arm during the arrest.
On April 5, Zellner will celebrate his 82nd birthday, and in a fitting and timely tribute to his many years of activism, Zellner’s life story — specifically, his role as the first white field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s — has made it to the big screen in “Son of the South,” a film from executive producer Spike Lee. Dedicated to Zellner’s friend of 60 years, the late Georgia civil rights icon John Lewis, and based on “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek,” the film was written, directed and edited by Barry Alexander Brown. It stars Lucas Till as a young Bob Zellner and takes place in Brown’s own hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, where the true events in Zellner’s life occurred.
“There’s quite a bit of the book that wasn’t covered,” explained Zellner in a recent phone interview. “Barry had a difficult time in writing the script — condensing 50 or 60 years into 120 minutes. You have to limit it. So he limited it to my childhood and my introduction to the movement. By the time the movie ends, I had just joined the SNCC staff.
“I think they did an incredible job of making a motion picture with a small budget,” Zellner added. “I credit Barry and Spike Lee, who both have deep roots in Alabama. Barry wanted to make a movie about Alabama in Alabama. At first, money was difficult to raise and nobody wanted to invest in it. But he raised it in Alabama, and shot it in Alabama and it is being supported by the state of Alabama.”
For years, Zellner worked closely with Brown in writing the screenplay, and he notes that the movie was primarily created from his memories and stories that the two of them developed together.
“Barry would record the stories then do a version of the script and give it to me and say, ‘What do you think and what do we need to change?’ We worked on it that way from beginning to end.”
For Zellner, who has suffered brutal beatings at the hands of violent police, segregationist lynch mobs and the Klan, reliving some of the more harrowing moments of his youth on film wasn’t easy.
“I’ve had to separate myself from my character in the movie,” explained Zellner. “I refer to him as ‘the character,’ not me. I have moderate to severe PTSD. It causes [my wife] Pamela and I an incredible amount of grief, and some of those scenes were so real from the past, they were emotional to watch.
“But I did do a cameo in the hanging scene,” he added. “I’m part of the lynch mob — I just had to be part of the racist mob.”
As the son of a Methodist minister, the SNCC website explains that Zellner’s interest in civil rights was rooted in his religious faith. When his father broke away from the Klan, it notes, his mother made Sunday school shirts from the white robes. When asked if he first became aware of social and racial injustice as a college student, Zellner said that it actually began long before then.
“I was interested, even as a child,” he said. “I did a lot of my growing up in East Brewton, Alabama, on the wrong side of the tracks and the poor side of town. When I was 12 or 13, I worked in a small grocery store and I was struck by the way the Black customers were treated versus white customers.
“Tut Edwards, the store’s owner, was a UU [Unitarian Universalist] and a follower of Huey P. Long as a progressive populist,” he added. “I was always asking why we had to treat the Black customers different from white customers. He had to teach me the caste system. He was sorry to teach me, but it was a survival technique.”
In the mid-1950s, when Zellner was in high school in Mobile, Alabama, Autherine Lucy became the first Black student to attend the University of Alabama.
“That’s when I realized I had a different feeling than my peers. I thought it would be great for Autherine Lucy and Alabama,” Zellner said. “I was told, ‘Don’t let anyone hear you say that.’ Even if you didn’t agree, you were supposed to keep your mouth shut.”
Zellner’s social activism began in earnest in 1961 when, as a 22-year-old Freedom Rider and SNCC’s field secretary, he traveled from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia, to test two U.S. Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregation of interstate travel facilities. It led to the first of his many arrests in multiple states. But with every battle, progress was made, and though since his early days in the movement attitudes have changed greatly, Zellner noted that many members of his own family have gone back to their Klan ways and to this day, discussions on certain topics are avoided altogether during get-togethers.
Because it’s so difficult to go against family, friends and long-standing attitudes, it would seem that southerners who fight for civil rights are often the most committed advocates of racial equality, and Zellner would tend to agree.
“I think it’s true that some of the most dedicated anti-racist people are southerners. I think one of the reasons is they pay a huge price for the sentiment,” Zellner said. “It’s very important and they’re not going to give it up easily. The other aspect is our Black sisters and brothers always think you can be in the movement for a while, and then you can go back to being white.”
In other words, being fully committed is a way to show you are true to the cause.
As a native southerner who lived and worked in New York for many years, Zellner is in a unique position to compare attitudes toward race in the two geographical areas. While northerners often like to think of themselves as historically more tolerant, he notes that this part of the world has hardly been a bastion of equality.
“There is a difference in the way people talk about and handle it, but racism is the same whether it’s down South or up North,” Zellner said. “Long Island also has an interesting history because of that rich soil which is Bridgehampton loam — it was a plantation area during slavery and there was a strong slave culture on Long Island.”
In his role on the anti-bias task force in Southampton, Zellner recalled, he investigated all sorts of incidents where symbols of hate, including nooses, would be used as intimidation or to create a political divide or controversy.
“It would be at their places of business, or on the side of buildings. It was a symbol that made me feel at home in the Hamptons,” he said facetiously. “I did some research as a historian and I discovered a close connection between the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina and eastern Long Island. Klan fundraisers from the South would go north to raise money. Eastern Long Island was a lucrative place to raise money.
“Racism, if you clean it up, sells very well in the North and it can get you political power.”
In looking back on his half century or more of organizing and studying race in North America, Zellner has come to believe that the underlying issue surrounding race is the caste system, which he maintains is far more rigid than a class system.
“It’s very strong, and whenever it’s challenged, people will do extraordinary things to maintain the caste system,” Zellner said. “It was instructive to me to look at the socioeconomic backgrounds of many involved in the insurrection at the Capitol. Those were not poor, unemployed, uneducated white working people. They were solid, middle class bourgeoisies.
“With this film Barry Alexander Brown and Spike Lee are putting their talents in the field of arts to address these questions that are really on the front burner,” he said. “Is democracy worth trying to save, and if so, what do we have to do to save our democracy?”
“Son of the South” is available for streaming and can be rented or purchased on several digital platforms, including Apple TV, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, FandangoNow and Redbox On Demand.