To Bob Zellner, the American civil rights movement is far more than something you read in history books, read in the newspaper, or watched on TV. This Alabama-born son of a former Ku Klux Klan member has spent 50 years fighting for equal rights for all Americans, suffering right alongside famous leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.
On November 4, Zellner will speak at Union College for the inaugural installment of the George Gibson Lecture series. Zellner’s talk, “Imagining a Progressive South: America’s Third Reconstruction,” will explore how the first [American Civil War] and second [Civil Rights Movement of 50s and 60s] reconstructions were overturned and how extremists have spent the last 50 years systematically destroying all the rights won during the civil rights movement, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
With more than 50 years of experience in civil rights causes, Zellner has been insulted, brutally beaten and attacked, and arrested more than 18 times in seven different states. He joined the movement in its early years by organizing rallies, sit ins, speeches, participating in marches and freedom rides. In 2014, he was featured in TIME magazine as one of 17 “living legends” of the Civil Rights Movement to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
In college, Zellner met both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mrs. Rosa Parks while conducting research for a class project. Zellner recounts, “As we waited for Dr. King to go out in front of the church, Mrs. Parks — who was an organizer, not just a tired seamstress sitting on the bus; she was an NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] organizer — touched me on my elbow (and I haven’t washed that elbow since) and that saint of granite and quiet sincerity said to me, ‘Bob, when you see something wrong, you have to do something about it. You can’t study it forever.’ Now, no one has ever had a commission in the movement or commission in the military that was stronger than that.” Dr. Zellner has told this story many times, and each time he is just as excited about it as he was when it happened.
Bob Zellner was born in southern Alabama in the spring of 1939, to a former robe-wearing member of the Ku Klux Klan turned Methodist preacher and a school teacher. Zellner’s other relatives, his grandfather, uncles and aunt, did not experience this same change of heart. Once when marching with the NAACP, he received a telegram from his mother asking him not to march in Birmingham because his grandfather was going to kill him. “I marched.” said Zellner. “And luckily we were arrested at the state line, so I never had the test. But I knew that I was going to march in Birmingham, I was pretty sure my grandfather was going to shoot me.” Bob said in an interview with the Keppler speaking agency.
Zellner’s civil rights days aren’t over yet, and in his 70’s he is still fighting. In 2013 he was arrested—for the first time in more than a dozen years—at a nonviolent demonstration at the North Carolina General Assembly led by the NAACP state chapter. The protest and many others like it took a stand against policies affecting health care, education, and voting rights. “All over the nation people are wondering why North Carolina wants to go backward rather than forward.” Zellner said. “We have a saying that freedom is a constant struggle. You constantly have to safeguard your own freedoms. That’s why we’re being a witness. And sometimes we have to go to jail. We have to take a risk.”
The George Gibson Lecture Series at Union College was created in 2015 to honor recently retired professor of history, George Gibson, who taught for more than 30 years in Union’s Division of Humanities. Gibson always dreamed of starting a lecture series addressing history and current events. Now thanks to a generous gift from alumnus Rod Colburn and a matching gift from his employer, Goldman Sachs, the series has become a reality.“We are excited to launch with Bob Zellner, a living link to momentous events in the United States this last half century,” said Mark Robison, chair of the Division of Humanities who manages the series.
Zellner’s talk will take place on November 4, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. in Heartland Hall of College View Church. The church is located at the corner of 48th and Prescott on the campus of Union College. The George Gibson Lecture Series is free and open to the public.
This event will be livestreamed on UCLive.
By Alisson Knopp, Student Writer