Born in Alabama on 5 April 1939, John Robert Zellner was the second of James Abraham Zellner and Ruby Hardy Zellner’s five sons. James Zellner, an itinerant Methodist preacher and member of the Ku Klux Klan, traveled to Europe during World War II to help support the Jewish resistance to the Nazis. While in Russia, he lived and worked with a group of black gospel singers who were also helping the resistance, and when he returned to the United States, he repudiated his racist beliefs. After graduating from Mobile’s Murphy High School in 1957, Bob Zellner attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, where he took a course in race relations and attended a workshop held by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Though threatened with expulsion for his involvement with student protests, Zellner graduated in 1961 with a degree in psychology and sociology. After spending the following summer at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, Zellner was hired by SNCC to recruit white students for the movement, a position sponsored by a grant from the Southern Conference Education Fund. Until 1962 Zellner was SNCC’s only white field secretary.
After working briefly in Atlanta, Zellner went to McComb, Mississippi, with Bob Moses and Chuck McDew for a SNCC planning session. During the visit McComb students organized a march to protest the murder of Herbert Lee and the expulsion of Brenda Travis and Ike Lewis from Burglund High School. The SNCC workers joined the students in front of City Hall to pray, and Zellner, the protest’s only white participant, was attacked and severely beaten by several white men while local police watched and FBI agents took notes. The men attempted to drag Zellner away from the other protesters, but Zellner clung to a railing until police finally pulled him off to arrest him, along with the other SNCC workers and 119 students. For several months Zellner, McDew, and Moses ran a freedom school, Nonviolent High of Pike County, for the students who dropped out of Burglund High to protest Travis’s expulsion, though the school closed when the three activists were convicted of disturbing the peace and contributing to the delinquency of minors. They were sentenced to four months in jail and fined.
Zellner also participated in SNCC’s McComb voter registration campaign and in the Pike County Nonviolent Movement before moving to Leflore County to work with Amzie Moore and the McGhee family on desegregation, voter registration, and the formation of the Leflore County Freedom Democratic Party. After beginning graduate study on race relations and sociology at Brandeis University, Zellner took a leave of absence in 1964 to coordinate SNCC’s efforts in Greenwood. During the summer of 1964 he also worked in Neshoba County with Rita Schwerner, investigating the murder of her husband, Michael Schwerner, and two other civil rights workers, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Zellner also campaigned for social justice in Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia.
In 1966 SNCC voted to expel white activists from its organization, and although Zellner and his wife, Dorothy Miller Zellner, who also worked for SNCC, appealed, SNCC’s central committee rejected their request for reinstatement. The couple subsequently moved to New Orleans to work with the Southern Conference Educational Fund. Zellner earned a doctorate in history from Tulane University in the 1990s and until his retirement taught the history of the civil rights movement at Long Island University. He continues to speak publicly on civil rights and in 2008 published a memoir, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement. He continues his activism and in April 2013 was arrested for protesting North Carolina’s voter ID law.
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Moral Heroes website, www.moralheroes.org
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Bob Zellner, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement (2008)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)