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Selected Interviews: Bob Zellner

Q: I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you came to be involved with SNCC [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] as a white man.

BZ: I grew up in South Alabama, and my father was a member of the Klan, my grandfather was a member of the Klan, and other relatives and friends were as well. So I came from a fairly conservative part of the country, South Alabama. Mother and Dad both graduated from Bob Jones College—now Bob Jones University, and it's probably no more liberal now than it was then. So I had a typical upbringing, I suppose, in the South. Only there was one main difference and that was that my father, unlike his brothers and his father, and his father, had broken with the Klan. So that as I grew up I didn't get, in my family itself, the type of racist teaching that was more or less automatic for white Southerners.

Bob ZellnerQ: Could you say something just a little bit more about that, about the racist teachings being automatic?

BZ: Well, I remember that I did get lessons in racism, somewhat, outside the family. I worked in a small country store when we lived in East Brewton, Alabama. And I remember my boss telling me one day not to do what I had just done. And I was not aware of what transgression I had just made, except he explained that I had said "yes, sir" to a black man and "yes, ma'am" to a black woman. And he explained to me that if it was just he and I and a black customer, it was all right, but if there were white people around that I couldn't do that. I explained to him that I had been raised to have manners, and that meant that to older people you said "yes, sir" and "no, sir" and "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am." He said that it's all right if it's just us, but other people will get very upset if you do that. So, you know, you get mixed signals, because this was also a person who was a populist and believed that Huey P. Long had set the moon and the stars, and told me all about class politics, and at the same time he conveyed these racial etiquettes as well.

Q: Within the white community of the South, how much variation was there? I mean, was there a fairly broad range from really hardcore segregationists to people who were sympathetic to the struggle of blacks and would have in fact preferred to change things, but didn't?

BZ: Well, as I think back on those days, in every community there are a few people with courage and a few people with the strength of their convictions. And they support people who take stands. Generally, the situation is one of conformity—was when I grew up in Alabama—conformity and fear. Because I remember one of the first times that I felt—not only that time in the store, but later when Autherine Lucy went to the University of Alabama, the first black student to enter the University of Alabama. There were tremendous riots and so forth, the governor took a holiday and let the mobs have their way, and they were able to keep this student from entering the University. I remember saying to my high school friends that I thought it was a good idea for her to go to the University. They immediately expressed not disagreement but fear. And they said, 'Don't let anybody else hear you say that.' And I said, 'Well, you've heard me say that.' And they said 'Yeah, well, we know you're crazy. But somebody, those other people, will hurt you.'

And that's when I first became really interested in studying this problem, because I wanted to know where that fear comes from. Because no one was able to say who the person was who was going to hurt me; they weren't going to hurt me themselves. There's an unspoken fear. And I assumed that they were talking about Klansmen and, you know, people of that—people with whom I got very well acquainted later in my life. But it probably wasn't even Klansmen. It was just the idea that if you were that nonconformist, and no matter what you thought, it was OK to think what you wanted but you were supposed to have sense enough to keep your thoughts to yourself. It was that kind of conformism.

Q: So, tell us about how you happened to become a SNCCster

BZ: Well, luckily, or unluckily, depending on your point of view, I went to college in Montgomery, Alabama, and I majored in psychology and sociology. And being in Montgomery in my college years from 1957 to 1961—I didn't realize it at the time, but later I realized it as a very key period in the history of the South. I was given an assignment as a senior to study the racial problem and write a paper presenting ideas of solutions to the problem. And that's one reason why I like to talk to young people so much about that period, because I got involved, really, as a student. And it was interesting that I wound up on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When I first got involved, it was on the basis of a paper.

Five of us said that we wanted to go to the Montgomery Improvement Association to talk to Reverend [Ralph] Abernathy and Dr. [Martin Luther] King. And our professor said no, we couldn't do that, to go to the library. That's where you're supposed to do research. And we explained that we had been to the library, and he said, well, if you want to do field research go to the White Citizens' Council, or the Klan; they had a lot of material on the subject. And we explained that yes, we had done that: we had all of their material. And we said to our sociology professor—Arlie B. Davidson, Dr. Arlie B. Davidson—we said we think we should go to the Montgomery Improvement Association because we know that scholars have come from all over the world here to Montgomery to study what had happened in the Montgomery bus boycott. And that was a way of addressing racism, and a solution possibly to the problem, and we think that we would be derelict if we don't do that. "Oh, that we won't be necessary," and so forth.

But to make a very long story short, we did go. We met Dr. King, we met Reverend Abernathy, we met with students from Alabama State, near our campus. That was an all-black campus; our campus was all white. And as a result of those meetings, five of us were asked to leave school, the Klan burnt crosses around our dormitory, we were called into the office of the Attorney General of the State of Alabama, who said that 'You're under the communist influence.' And I remember being so naïve I said that, 'You mean there are communists in Alabama?' And he said, 'Well, no, they don't live here but they come through here, and it's obvious that you have fallen under their influence.' So being budding sociologists and so forth, this even piqued our interest even more: we said 'Well, you know, who were these communists?' And we really figured out what happened was that if you ever indicated any interest in racial problems and so forth, you were a communist. They had no idea what a communist was.

But the reaction was so vicious to our simply trying to find out. We weren't sitting in and we weren't going on Freedom Rides; we were trying to find out what the situation was. And to boil it down, they gave you the choice of completely capitulating to their know-nothing racism or becoming a rebel. So out of the five students, four of them did resign from school. And I was the only one that refused to resign. I said if you get rid of me, you expel me, and I'll make a case out of it. I didn't know what kind of case I could make, but I refused to resign. We were all restricted to campus. I tested the restriction by going to Highlander Folk School. My family got involved, my father got involved through the church—I was going to Huntington College, which was a Methodist school.

So that's really the way that I got involved: that my freedom was being curtailed on the altar of racism, and I said, No, I am a free American. I have rights under the Constitution, I have rights under the church. I said that what I am doing is what my school told me to do.

Q: So remind me, what year was that?

BZ: This was in 1960 and '61—school year '60-'61. I graduated that summer, that spring of '61 and I joined the staff of SNCC. What's a person to do?

Q: In Alabama?

BZ: In Alabama. I went to the meeting at Highlander. There was a discussion there. It was a meeting of SNCC people who had participated in the sit-in movement and in the Freedom Fides. And they were beginning to talk seriously about students coming out of college and giving full-time work in a staff situation to the movement. So not realizing there weren't many applicants for the job—they needed a representative for white colleges in the South. I applied for that job and got it.

Q: So you were the first white staffer, as I understand it?

BZ: Well, you know now that I'm studying history, I'm much more concerned for the precise truth, and the precise truth is that I was the first white Southerner on the SNCC staff, as it was formed in the fall of '61. There had been another white Southerner, Jane Stembridge, who was the first white worker for SNCC, but not a field secretary. She was the first staff person for SNCC, so I was the first white field secretary, I suppose they might say, for SNCC.

Q: So you got this job of going to work on white campuses, and what happened in that work?

BZ: My job description was to be a campus traveler for Southern campuses, and I remember talking to James Forman, who was the brand new incoming Executive Director for SNCC. I said, how do I go about doing this job, and he said, well I don't know for sure, but you're gonna have to know what's going on, so you should go to staff meetings. So I said, where's the staff meetings? He said there's one coming up in McComb, Mississippi. And being an Alabamian, we had always been a little bit afraid of Mississippi. And being in Alabama, we had always thanked God for Mississippi, because it was one of the places that had a lower place on the index than Alabama. But he said, you go to McComb, Mississippi and you go to the meeting there. So that was the first meeting I went to. And it's fairly important I think because of the series of decisions that I made, that made me a real part of the SNCC staff. I later learned that it was typical of SNCC meetings [that] it was not a typical meeting. Things happened at SNCC meetings. And one thing that happened there was that 125 students walked out of [their] high school to protest the expulsion of [black teenager] Brenda Travis and also the murder of Herbert Lee. Herbert Lee had been helping Bob Moses in starting up a voter registration project, had been killed by E.H. Hurst, who was a Mississippi state legislator. And Brenda had been in a sit-in and she was expelled from school. So these were the two wings of SNCC: one, the direct action wing, and the other the voter registration wing.

So while we were in the meeting we suddenly heard singing. And soon I could make out the words "We Shall Overcome." And I think it was the first time I heard that song, certainly by marching students. And they all came up to where we were; they started making signs. It wasn't a question of should we go to the City Hall—we are going to the City Hall. And it wasn't even a question of who's going with us. And that was sort of the question that was being posed to us older people: I was 21, Brenda was 14, Hollis [Watkins] was probably 18.... That was our ripe old ages. Moses was a few years older, and Forman was a few years older, but we were all fairly young. And of course I immediately began to tell myself why I can't go on the march. My father is a minister, he'll lose his church. My mother is a school teacher, she'll lose her job. If I go, there'll be more violence than usual, because I'll be the only white person. And then my sociological imagination came into play: I said well, how much violence is usual in these situations? I think I asked someone, and they said we don't know—we've never done this before! And I learned later that it was really the first march of that type in Mississippi, probably since Reconstruction a hundred years before. The major activity had been NAACP voter registration work. The Freedom Riders of course had come in to Jackson and gone right into the white waiting room and had gone straight to Parchman Prison, so this was the first action of this kind in Mississippi.

So I finally said, what's going to happen to these kids? What's going to happen to their parents, you know? They're going to be massacred. By this time, they were marching down the stairs and headed down to City Hall, so without saying anything to anybody I fell in line with them. And that was the way I joined SNCC. Because, you know, nobody was there to say, "yeah, I think you should do this, I don't think you should do this." And of course I was supposed to go on white college campuses, and during this colloquy with myself I had said, If you go here you're going to be arrested, you'll never get on a white college campus. And of course I was able to get on white college campuses, maybe not as easy later, but I became a very marked person in the South. And there was a reason for that: because I had become a SNCC person; I was a SNCCer.

Q: Where were you in '64?

BZ: In '64 I was in Mississippi of course, and I was planning to be located in Greenwood, Mississippi, which was the SNCC headquarters for the summer of '64. And the main reason that my wife Dottie, my ex-wife Dottie ... worked with Julian Bond as Communications Director. He was Communications Director; she was his associate.

So the first part of the summer, first weeks of the summer, or first week of the summer, I was at Oxford [Ohio]. I was part of the training team to train the volunteers to go into Oxford. At the end of the first week, or the weekend between the two sessions, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared. There was a SNCC meeting in Oxford, and there was a need for someone to go to Mississippi with Rita Schwerner. And it had to be done immediately, because we knew that if there was any possibility that the civil rights workers were still alive, that we had to get in there quickly, even though we knew that it would be dangerous. We knew that we had to go because we knew that because of the history of people giving information to the Justice Department or the FBI, we knew that they would not give any information to them, because they considered it just like talking to the Klan or just like talking to the local police, which was the same as the Klan. So the first part of the summer I spent basically with Rita Schwerner and others in the investigation of the missing civil rights workers. ....

Q: Can you tell us a little about the training, in Oxford?

BZ: The training in Oxford was basically in two forms: one was practical, and the other was the emotional or psychological or even ideological, if you want to give any of those three labels. The practical was to try to convey to the volunteers the gravity of the situation even though they had been through an application process and so forth that was designed to inform them of the worst conditions. But that was strengthened, so there was a lot of interaction between veteran staff and volunteers. And that was both on the practical level and on the psychological or emotional level. Practical level was simply laying down security rules, and those went from the mundane to the more general.

Generally, each project and each staff was responsible for recording all incidents of violence and terrorism and reporting them to the organization, which then reported them routinely to the government: the FBI and the Justice Department. And we did that for one reason basically, and that is to have a record that these incidents have been reported. So people were trained in understating rather than overstating; the facts, nothing but the facts, you know, speculation clearly labeled as speculation, assumptions labeled assumptions, facts—facts. So there was a certain amount of training that was sort of journalistic, sort of legal—paralegal. And then there were the other security measures; no interracial groups traveling, day or night, unless absolutely necessary, and if that happened, only one group would be—whoever was in the minority would be hidden, covered up with blankets, laying on the floorboards, whatever. Training in jail procedures and so forth, if you're released from jail at odd hours and so forth, there's not somebody there, refuse to leave—you don't leave. People had done that before, and disappeared and were killed. ....

The other thing was that there were workshops to condition people to respond nonviolently to violent situations. There was a lot of training in terms of that. There was role-playing. There would be marchers, and there would be mob people, and there would be police, and there would be reporters, and there would be, so you would have all of that. People were taught how to protect themselves as much as possible from physical beating situations: protect your vital spots, your kidneys and so forth, the fetal position, protect your head and that sort of thing.

And there was a lot of discussion on the relationships between the races and so forth. There was a discussion of the role that the sexual taboos of black men and white women and so forth would play. So there was a lot of discussion of avoiding unnecessary provocation and so forth, in that way. There was also discussion informally more than formally, I think, of the effect it might have inside of the movement for there to be sexual relations and so forth that would get in the way of the work that was going to occur. But you know, at the same time, we're talking about the early to middle sixties. We were in the middle of a sexual revolution, and there was also a lot of challenging of taboos. And you know that the people who came South to volunteer and people who worked with SNCC were not the most staid and the most conformist people in the world. That's the reason that there was a lot of attention paid to that, and so forth. And it wasn't on the basis of prudishness or whatever else, it was—we were primarily concerned about survival.

And that was a contradiction as well, because bringing large numbers of largely white, largely middle class male and female youth and students into Mississippi was a calculated maneuver, you know, to raise the consciousness of the nation, and everybody knew that the kind of violence and terrorism that was going to address that situation was going to be an organizing possibility; it was going to be leverage against the government and so forth to really enforce the laws that were on the books and also pass whatever laws were necessary in order to be passed. So there was that tension as well: knowing that the violence was going to be a potential thing, but also not wanting—in the screening process this was very important—not wanting anybody with the slightest hint of a martyr complex.

Q: I'm curious about racial tension, or what kinds of things were there—issues that came up at Oxford ... between blacks and whites?

BZ: Well, there had been a great amount of discussion in SNCC meetings prior to the Summer of '64, as the Summer of '64 project was being planned, even before it was being planned—when it was being discussed and decided upon. There was a fair amount of opposition to having the volunteers, large numbers of volunteers coming in from outside, and there were fears that were expressed, and that was that people will be—and and this was one of the ironies of the situation, because in looking back at the minutes and debriefing and peoples' memories and so forth, there was a fair amount of attention paid to the potential of highly trained, articulate, well-educated outsiders coming in and jeopardizing the kind of training and the kind of leadership development that was going on in Mississippi. Because since 1961 there had been a lot of recruitment, a tremendous amount of work done in the state bringing young people into leadership positions. They were getting trained in techniques of organizing, techniques of propaganda, techniques of education, and so forth. So there was a concern, and there was an awareness of this as a potential problem.

Q: Was this a black-white issue, or a cultural issue, or a North-South issue?

BZ: You know, looking at it in hindsight—and you can't really look at it without hindsight, because we do have hindsight now—it was as much a cultural issue and an educational issue, or a class issue, as it was a race issue. It became, as it percolated and distilled, it came to be seen as and in fact was more of a race issue, as it played out—as the dynamic played out. But in the beginning I think that it was more of a class [issue] because actually most of the Southern black kids had probably as many problems with the highly articulate, well-trained and well-educated black students from Howard and other universities and colleges in the North as they did with white students. So part of it was a cultural thing.

So, there was a discussion of whether or not—I mean I'm way back now in the discussion of whether or not to have it. In fact it's my impression, I believe it can be demonstrated through research that the preponderance of opinion prior to the decision to actually do the project, on the SNCC staff—which you remember was fairly small at that time still; it was much more than the fifteen in 1961, but it was much less than the staff was in '65 or '64 after the Summer. So it was still a relatively small staff, and I think that probably the majority were not in favor of having the project.

And I remember at one point that Moses, who of course was a very forceful character in his very quiet way, said ... ‘I will not be a part of anything that is all black,’ or words to that effect, meaning that he wanted an integrated project and that this was what SNCC was about. And he was stating something that had been general agreement, but now the fact of needing it to be stated, the implication is that it was not general agreement anymore, if you understand my meaning of that. So, there was that tension.

Q: Do you still think it was a wonderful idea?

BZ: I do. I still think it was a great idea. I wish that we had, there had been enough insight at the time to ameliorate some of the more detrimental effects of it. And it's still ironic to me that we were aware of those potential effects, and it was like Greek tragedy: it still occurred.

Q: What were some of those effects?

BZ: Some of those effects were just in self-perception, I suppose, of the Southern young people, that this really proved the point that black Mississippians could be brutalized, could be lynched and so forth, basically at will. But if it involved two white guys from New York and a black Mississippian, it would be worldwide news. And something would be done. They would have troops going through swamps and so forth, as limited as it all was. So, that was part of it: self-perception.

The other was those little things that I've talked about before. In Freedom Houses here and there, projects here and there, the rush of time, we need a stencil cut. That was during the days when we actually needed stencils and then put stuff on a mimeograph machine and ran it off. And this was a place where young Mississippians, mostly black, had gone through a lot of pain and suffering to learn some of those skills and techniques. And suddenly somebody from you know Bryn Mawr or Brown or Stanford or somewhere—you know, ‘I can type 100 words per minute. Let me do that. Brrrum pum pum pum,’ You know, ‘I know how to run that machine; I can even fix that machine.’ So there was a certain amount of shouldering aside. And you know it may have been more symbolic than real, but there was a definite situation there. But you know it was very strange because there was sort of a perception difference between the old white veterans and the new influx of volunteers, because people would talk about ‘white folks this, white folks that,’ you know, and I’d say, ‘Well, I'm white people.’ And they'd say, ‘Shut up, nigger.’ You probably can't use that, but—

Q: Yes, we can.

BZ: It was that kind of feeling that we had, you know. So one of the things that exasperated me later in my struggles within the organization, on the white-black question, was that my situation—my struggle was that it's not necessary for SNCC to become an all-black organization because any white person in SNCC who has any influence has it on the basis of a clear understanding [of] where the leadership in the organization is, and that's in black hands: black men and black women. So if I had any influence or any effect on the organization, it was always because my leaders were James Forman, my leaders were Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson. Mrs. Hamer. Ella Baker. My leaders were clearly black, and I would never presume to attempt to have—and also, position in SNCC was never on what your job was, what your job title was. It was basically what you did. You had influence on the basis of your work.

In the Summer of '64, for instance, Stokely, who [later became] Kwame Toure, was Project Director in Greenwood. And there became a tremendously hostile, terroristic situation that developed in Tallahatchee County, other places in the Delta. He had to go start up a project there, something that they hadn't really planned to do. So Forman said, 'Well, Zellner, what are you doing?' And I said, 'Well, I'm here because basically Dotty is here and everything, and I'm doing some work on voter registration and I'm working in the Freedom Schools.' .... He said, ‘Okay, well, you'll be Project Director. And I said, ‘Well, don't you think somebody black should be? And he said, ‘Well, when somebody comes along they'll be Project Director but until then, you do that.’ And that was common with the older staff. The same thing happened in Talladega. Forman said, ‘Go over to Talladega and have workshops over there.’ And I said, ‘Well, don't you think you should send a black staff person?’ And he said ‘Yes, but nobody is available. You go over there and start, and when somebody gets available, I'll send 'em on over there.’ And of course he never did. I went over there, did the workshops and everything, we had sit-ins, integrated the lunch counters and all that stuff.

That was just done in that time. Those were things that later on would have looked different. And there was an exceptionalism because of the fact that I—you know, people always said, ‘What made you go South to help the black people?’ And I always said, Well, first of all I didn't go South; I was already South. And I never set out to help the black people. I was looking for my own redemption and my own freedom. ....

I talk to young people on college campuses and universities today. And they ask me how can we break down these barriers, because the barriers in some ways are taller and tougher than they were in those days. And I said you do it by being in a foxhole together. If black men and women and white men and women are in a foxhole together, you are welded together in a very strong weld. And that's because you're in action together.

I talk to white young people and I say it's really—you know, the black people can listen, but let me talk to the white young people for a minute—and I say, It's your responsibility to find out where the action is, and if there is no action find out what needs to be done, plan it and organize it, and do it with people of color. Do it with other ethnic groups. Do it with men and women together, and so forth. And that's the way you get unity; that's the way you break down these barriers.

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