Freedom rider escaped long tradition of racism in KKK family

Old Gold & Black, Wake Forest University/February 14, 2013

Born into an Alabama family where both his grandfather and father were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Bob Zellner escaped the hold of a long tradition of racism to become a freedom rider and a participant in the Civil Rights Movement.

Zellner came to the university Feb. 13 to share his story and his insight into the Civil Rights Movement and how its future rests in the hands of the youth of America.When he was young, Zellner's father, a minister, decided to leave the Klan, helping Zellner develop his antipathy towards racism. "It affected me very much when dad quit the Klan," Zellner said. "His father disowned him and his brothers never spoke to him again, but my mother was so happy that she took his Klan robes and cut them up and made them into white shirts for us to go to church and Sunday school."

Zellner first became involved in the Civil Rights movement through a sociology assignment that he worked on with four other students at Huntingdon College.

"I was given a sociology assignment to study the racial problem," Zellner said. "Five of us went to meet Dr. King, and we met Rosa Parks and the people who made the Montgomery Bus Boycott." Zellner received substantial abuse from white racists and the Ku Klux Klan for meeting King and other civil rights leaders.

"We were asked to leave school, the Klan burnt crosses around our dormitory, we were called into the office of the Attorney General who said we were under communist influence and we were generally harassed out of the state," Zellner said.

Zellner was encouraged to join the movement by none other than Rosa Parks, the woman who inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Zellner was with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks when the church they were in was surrounded by the police.

"Right before they opened the door, Mrs. Parks touched me on the elbow, and she said, ‘Bob, when you see something wrong, you have to do something about it. You can't just study it forever.' So I went forth and joined the movement," Zellner said.

Along with other members in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Zellner risked his life on every freedom ride and every march. He was arrested 18 times in seven different states.

Among the charges he faced were criminal anarchy and "inciting the black population to acts of war against the white population."

Zellner also faced grave danger in prison. "It could be tough being put in the white cell block, because the police would always point us out as the N-lover and the freedom rider," Zellner said.

At his first demonstration, Zellner was accosted by a crowd of white segregationists and had to fight for his life.

"A little group starting beating me and the mob said, ‘Bring him here, we will kill him!'" Zellner said.

"They tried to take me from the steps, so I held onto the rail on the city steps," Zellner said.

"I was having to hold on and they would pull and I would hold on and when they tried to get another hold I would move up the rail. They finally piled on top of me and the last thing I remember was a boot kicking me in the head."

Zellner has remained committed to the cause of civil rights and is now helping to organize a new mass civil rights movement.

"A new mass movement is developing called "The Third Reconstruction," and it is right here in North Carolina," Zellner said. "We are planning to organize a Freedom Summer in North Carolina this year."

The Third Reconstruction movement aims to increase voter turnout and registration among African Americans and to transform the political and social culture of the South.

"With the Third Reconstruction, a key part of it is that black power, real black power, symbolized by President Obama being reelected, has finally been achieved, to a larger extent, in this country," Zellner said.

"We are going to end the time when the South will be the bastion of reaction in this country."

Most students were overwhelmed by the personal stories of events that often seem so remote and distant so irrelavant to their own lives.

"Whenever you study the civil rights movement, it seems so long ago, but he was there - he met these people," freshman Savannah Sowers said.

Junior John James felt that the story of Zellner's first demonstration was powerful and inspiring.

"It was really moving to hear his story," James said. "His first time going to a protest was a near death experience."

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