Charles Marsh: What was your first SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) assignment?
Bob Zellner: Well, I was actually hired specifically to be a campus traveler to white southern campuses.
CM: Oh, great! I didn’t know that.
BZ: Yeah, I was hired for that reason. I went to work for SNCC on a grant from SCEF (Southern Conference Educational Fund), so I was involved with SCEF from the very beginning. And I really got in touch with SCEF directly out of my college involvement because I met Virginia Durr and Clifford Durr. And Anne Braden was the reporter that called me to ask about the letter, because she’d write about it in the Southern Papers and so forth. And I said, “Your name, I think the Attorney General told me to look out for you, is your husband named Carl?” She said, “Oh yeah.” (CM Laughs) I said, “Where you from?” She said, “Anniston, AL.”
CM: Is that right?
BZ: I said, “Oh he said you all weren’t from Alabama.”
CM: Did you have–were you free to go to whatever college that you thought was, would give you a listen, or were you assigned certain schools?
BZ: Oh no, it wasn’t an assignment. Part of my responsibility was to make my itineraries and everything.
CM: Was it recruiting?
BZ: Well, at first it was an interpretation, explaining what the movement was about.
CM: To white schools?
BZ: To white schools.
CM: And schools were interested in this?
BZ: Oh sure, yeah. They were interested and we had contacts–if we didn’t, I would go cold to a campus and make contacts. I mean, that’s where I really became an organizer, I think. I mean, I was at Old Miss during the Meredtih crisis, completely undercover and underground, at least I thought, until students came one night and said, “You’ve gotta leave the dorms because cops are gonna arrest you.” And they took me over to the Faulkner place. And I stayed at–I stayed with the Faulkners for about four or five days during that while thing.
CM: Duncan Gray, who I mentioned earlier, was a pastor at the Episcopal Church in Oxford and was one of the few ministers who actually went out to the campus for the riot with twelve students. And he spoke at–he preached serious sermons.
CM: Will Campbell, I guess, was long gone at that point.
BZ: Yeah, Will had been long gone by then. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he went and spoke the way I wanted. My main task was to try and get some students to go and sit with Meredith in the dining hall. I said, “What is the simplest thing that can be done?” Well, I mean, what would you do if, well there was a new student and you wanted to–well, just go and eat with him. And some of them did, and it probably changed their lives just to go and do that.
CM: So these students befriended–well, not befriended but they went to seek out–
BZ: Oh yeah. And that was a pretty radical thing to do, I suppose, at the time.
CM: How did you locate these students?
BZ: Well, sometimes I had prior contacts who would network into a thick book ledger. Or I would go, I went absolutely cold to certain campuses and I would just take two or three days, and I would go to the–well, I was 21 so, I mean, I fit in quite well. I would just go and hang out at the, at the tea room or the coffee house or whatever kind of social gathering place they had and talk. And eventually the question would come around, I mean, it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t hard to get a conversation started about race at Ole Miss around the Meredith times. And then, you know, you would listen to people and see whether or not they seemed to be sympathetic. If they did, then you might open up to them a little bit, and then say–you know, I had various covers, I was doing a paper on blah, blah, blah or whatever. And they’d say, “Well, you need to talk to so-and-so.” And once you’d found one person, you’d really found them all because they generally knew who the other people were. And you’d go to that person and they’d say “Oh, yeah, let’s go talk to so-and-so and so-and-so,” and pretty soon you’d have half a dozen people.
CM: Did you try to talk to the militant students as well, the–those who were militantly racist or opposed to Meredith’s intention?
BZ: Well, I did–I would do it.
CM: That wasn’t the purpose.
BZ: That wasn’t my purpose to try to influence them so much. What I was trying to do was find those people who had a potential for some kind of progressive move.
CM: Did the Church ever help you locate these people?
BZ: Yes. Church contacts were very good. Sometimes I would go through the campus ministry.
BZ: Through Skeff or Jim Brasky or SNCC people if they knew anybody there. Or I knew a lot of people in the church hierarchy Margaret Riggs of Motive magazine. They would do articles on me occasionally, as the church boy making good and all that. In fact, you could look up some of those in Motive magazine, there was an article written about me by a bishop. It’s called “Claiming the Right to Choose” and it’s Motive magazine, I don’t remember what year.
CM: I can find it.
BZ: I’m trying to remember-Gold? Bishop Goldin? I think it was Bishop Goldin.
CM: Yeah, that’s right.
BZ: Oh yeah? Do you know Bishop Goldin?
BZ: OK, yeah, Bishop Goldin, “Claiming the Right to Choose.”
CM: He supported, he has (indistinct) stories in the church business campaign in Jackson in ’63.
BZ: OK. Also, Glenn Smiley was one of our mentors. He contacted us while we were still behind and said, I mean, he told us, he said that “You guys get run off from here,” he says. “Worse things could happen” he says, “because you can go to just about any university or college in the country, we would just guarantee that you can go to wherever you want to go if you get run off from here.” And we didn’t know entirely whether to believe him or not. (CM laughs). In fact, some of my friends said, “Well, you and Bill Hedge can go wherever because you’ve got the grades but I don’t know about us” (laughs). But Glenn Smiley, he was an influential person. And of course getting to know Jim Lawson was very important in the early days too, and C.T. Vivian and all the black ministers were helpful in our political and spiritual development. But I would make tours, see, I’m researching all that now but I have a lot of reports, field reports and everything into SCAS that I’ll be able to deal with, because the myth about me is that I got so involved in the mainstream SNCC action that I never did any of my job description. But I was doing my job description all the time, it was just that my job description got no attention whatsoever.
CM: What job description was this?
BZ: With SNCC, which was campus visiting.
CM: I mean, who–someone makes a case like this?
BZ: Oh yeah. Anne Braden, if you had talked to people in SNCC and so forth, they’d think I never did my job description, which was campus travel, because they said, well, I considered it too dull and other things were so exciting.
CM: And what did they consider so exciting?
BZ: Going to jail and getting beaten up. (CM laughs) And (BZ laughs), you know “He’s not doing his job, he’s always going to get beaten up.”
CM: Oh yeah, I can see that’s much more attractive.
BZ: But what I told Anne and them, I said “Look, when I asked Jim Forman what I should do about my job he said ‘If you’re gonna represent SNCC, you really have to know what SNCC’s doing, what’s going on. So the first thing you do is go to a staff meeting, it’s in Macomb on April the 4–on October the 4th.’” And that’s the first time, I was beaten nearly to death and arrested.
BZ: Macomb, yeah.
CM: White county, very mean place.
BZ: Oh, very mean place. But the funny thing about it was that I told Anne that I–and anybody who’d listen later–that the first time that I was faced with a demonstration like that, what could I do? I told myself I can’t go because I got to go to these white college campuses, and my father’d lose his church and my mother’d lose her teaching job and plus there’d be more violence than ordinary. And I said, “How much violence is there usually in these cases?” And people said, “We don’t know, we’ve never done this before.” But I was main–my, I may not have ever been a part of SNCC if I hadn’t a done simply what SNCC people did and that was to do what the Spirit say do. And I–so I started thinking myself when I saw these kids taking off, going down to the courthouse, I said “What’s gonna happen to their parents? What’s gonna happen to them? Half of them are still wet around the ears. So what’s gonna happen? They’re gonna lose their jobs, these people are gonna get beaten, so how can I not go?” So I just very quietly joined the line and off I went. It was the only thing I could do.