Mon September 14, 2009
"The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement,"
This is a story told calmly, without bitterness or self-aggrandizement. I admired Zellner's candor about his adversaries, without a smarmy mellowness. He has, as a Christian, mostly forgiven, but he has not forgotten.
By Don Noble
When this book arrived in my box some months ago, I put it aside, thinking it to be yet another memoir, like many another, of a civil rights activist's life in the sixties. Very recently I noticed that Zellner's book has won the Lillian Smith Award, given to a work that presents "an honest representation of the South, its people, its problems, and its promises," so I read it and am glad that I have. This is not a run-of-the-mill memoir and Zellner's story is unique, or darn close to it.
First the title. Zellner, one of five sons of a Methodist minister, was raised in several Alabama and Florida towns, but mainly in East Brewton, a town bisected by Murder Creek, and he lived on the wrong, or poorer side. Bob Zellner's father was a constant inspiration to him, living a life of real, not materialistic values, and fostering and supporting in his boys a social conscience, at a time when that was a dangerous enterprise.
Zellner enrolled as an undergraduate in Methodist Huntingdon College in 1957 and there, at first as "research" in sociology, observed and then joined the Civil Rights Movement.
Zellner and a few like-minded friends attended meetings and workshops of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which had already integrated the bus system. He met heroes of the Movement: Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, Clifford and Virginia Durr, attorney Charles Morgan, Floyd Mann, courageous head of the Alabama Highway Patrol, and even as a student was being followed by the Alabama Sovereignty Commission.
In May of 1961 the Freedom Riders were beaten at the Montgomery bus station by a KKK mob, while the police tactfully stayed away, rather than serving or protecting. It wasn't too much later that Zellner spent some time at the integrated Highlander Folk School. After graduation in 1961, Bob Zellner became the first white person to work full time for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Members of SNCC, like members of King's SCLC, were nonviolent, but they lived in violent times.
The next few years are a painful sequence of demonstrations, arrests, brutal beatings and jail time. Zellner was badly beaten and nearly lynched at a march in McComb, Mississippi, by a mob which actually contained a fellow classmate from Huntingdon, while the FBI merely observed.
He was jailed in Albany, Georgia and worked a month on a chain gang. In Baton Rouge he was arrested as a communist, tortured, and nearly died from dehydration after being kept in a superheated hot-box cell. (Zellner has also been beaten viciously by police in Boston and on Long Island, where he now lives, so the lawlessness of lawmen is not restricted to the South.) The list of marches, arrests and beatings goes on. In fact it becomes, not unbelievable, because I do believe it, but kind of superheroic.
Zellner was therefore rightly unhappy when after all his sacrifices, SNCC in 1967 decided to oust all whites and become an all-black, segregated organization.
But this is a story told calmly, without bitterness or self-aggrandizement. I admired Zellner's candor about his adversaries, without a smarmy mellowness. He has, as a Christian, mostly forgiven, but he has not forgotten.
The Dean and other administrators at Huntingdon were horrified by his civil rights activities and wanted him out. They met. "What followed was like a movie interrogation by a totalitarian dictator and his gang." Governor John Patterson, the man famous for teaching George Wallace how to campaign in Alabama, enjoying rehabilitation lately, is described as a "passionate segregationist" engaged in "witch hunts" and "red-baiting."
Zellner is especially bemused by the forgiveness by blacks of Gov. Wallace. For Zellner, "true forgiveness could only come after genuine contrition." Wallace didn't qualify. He had "switched sides so often that he himself didn't know where he actually stood."
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."