A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement

A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement March 16, 2015

Since meeting Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in the late 50s, Bob Zellner has lived his life in the Southern Freedom Movement. May 6-10 this year, he will serve as elder and guide for School for Conversion’s 21st-Century Freedom Ride to Selma, Alabama. Bob has nearly 60 years of experience from which to speak about why antiracist organizing and freedom work is good news for white people.

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By Bob Zellner

 

When I was COMING OF AGE IN ALABAMA, I realized my white southern family and I was harmed by racism. When I thought about how race discrimination had damaged white people, my mind was forced to shift gears. We usually confine our thinking to how racism has harmed those it is directed against and I had never thought about the ways in which I was harmed. In reflecting I realize that racial hatred’s persistent, deep stain on our present and past has hurt us all.

 

I grew up in south Alabama the cradle of the American Bible Belt, where children were to be seen, not heard. We lived in our own little world, separate from adults for the most part except for the occasional housekeeper or baby sitter. If there was company for dinner, called supper in the south, children often shared a separate table, sometimes waiting for grownups to eat before we were fed. When chicken was fried, we got the necks, backs, the feet and sometimes the head. Nothing was wasted. Somebody ate most parts of the chicken, as well as most parts of the pig. The Great Depression gripped the South and food was not to be wasted.

 

Talk of race, religion, philosophy or politics was out of earshot of little people because, Grandma Hardy said, “Little pitchers have big ears.” Our own family scandal was Daddy’s “nervous breakdown.” Southern families have always been famous for the eccentric bachelor uncle or maiden aunt locked in the attic wearing only Confederate gray or antebellum gowns. Mental disorder was scandalous and something to be ashamed of. Southern writers have mined this trove for decades.

 

The South, big on appearances due to the prevalence of mental illness, reveals the other side of Fanon’s study of mental disorder. Frantz Fanon studied and wrote about imperialism and the resulting mental disorder among oppressed people, but no corresponding study has looked at the mental illnesses of the oppressor.

 

Dad’s participation and membership in the KKK was, without doubt, a primary cause of his breakdown. You can’t be a minister of the gospel and practice racial hatred without paying a significant psychological price. Although the Klan connection was never mentioned, Dad’s dilemma, like the American one, was preaching one thing about race while doing another. Having half the population lording over the other half, taking the best of everything while leaving the rest to make do on scraps was bad enough. But my father had also figured out that holding black people down was impoverishing a majority of white people. He began preaching that if you were a poor working class white person in the South holding the black man down in the ditch, you should realize that you are down in the ditch with him. A rich man, Dad said, walked down the center of the road laughing at both men in the ditch — the black one and the white one.

 

Wealthy people, content to let white trash do the dirty work, were remembering the “patty rollers” during slavery. Common whites, owning no slaves, often supported slaveholders by patrolling the roads looking for runaway slaves. Ne’r do well white folk gained a false pride by being, at least, better than the niggers. And, one never knows, “I might just own me some slaves someday.”

 

This was much like today when many poor and working class white southern males of a certain age support the right wing policies of Republicans dictating low taxes for the richest Americans. You never know, say these dreamers, I could be rich some day myself and I would not like to be taxed.

 

The work was dirty because the only way the southern ruling class had ever been able to hold down the aspirations of black people and maintain a large supply of cheap labor after emancipation was through terror. Slavery had been maintained only by a constant state of war against the enslaved. One human enslaving another is best described as an act of war.

 

As little boys, my brothers and I had no idea of such racism and its possible connection with our father’s sickness. We just knew something was wrong with Daddy and we wanted him to get better so he could play with us again. We didn’t understand that Dad was undergoing a crisis of conscience.

 

Dad’s family and surroundings had determined his identity, wrapped up to an unusual degree in “the race question.” Raised in Birmingham, a raw bustling industrial caldron, he grew up in a relatively young city unleavened by the noblesse oblige paternalism sometimes found in older southern metropolises. Young James Zellner was not exposed to even the tiny liberalizing influences I found during my high school days in Mobile. New Orleans on the Gulf Coast and cities of the Atlantic seaboard like Charleston and Savannah, were much more cosmopolitan and relatively sophisticated. Granddaddy Zellner was a telegrapher and later a dispatcher on the GM&O Railroad, a hot bed of Ku Klux Klan activity. He taught his three sons and two daughters to be white supremacists. As the oldest son, my father, James Abraham Zellner, pleased his father by becoming, after initiation into the secret brotherhood, a Klan organizer or Kleagle with responsibility for recruiting new members.

 

As a child, then, I was injured by the system of apartheid in America. My injury, however, was not as apparent or as immediate as the damage being done to Mom and Dad. Dad, ambitious to do well in the ministry, was torn between advancement professionally on the one hand, and his emerging conviction that racial oppression and discrimination were both immoral and un-Christian.

 

By the time I was four or five, he was a struggling young minister in the Methodist Church immersed in a caldron of race, smack in the middle of Deep South Alabama and northwest Florida. As a Klansman my father was expected to take part in the racial firestorm sweeping the deep south, or at the very least to approve of it.

 

I have no conscious memory of race ever being discussed or even mentioned, but in later life I have had flashes of memory of virulent racism from that time. The memories consist of horrible screams of pain and loud whacks like a whip hitting a telephone pole.

 

I remember names, events, and places, whispered in hushed conversations. Apparently, adults were unaware that little ears perked up when voices dropped to a whisper. Usually people spoke of FDR openly and proudly but sometimes in hushed voices….” he’s trying to stop lynching…” or “…. Neal……Claude….Neal….”

 

In college, I studied sociology, psychology and history and I did graduate work in sociology at Brandeis University. During all those years, I grappled with the emotional toll that others and I paid for growing up in a southern “paradise” that seemed peaceful on its surface, but that was anything but peaceful and serene. Later, working on a doctorate in history at Tulane University, a discipline that demands a clear-eyed look at one’s specialty (in my case southern history and specifically civil rights history), I found it impossible to ignore my racist past and that of my beloved Deep South.

 

A cowl of shame descended over me when I learned it takes a village, no — an entire region — to raise and maintain a system of economic exploitation based on race and the circumstances of one’s birth.

 

The shame I felt as a white southerner, however, that my people had systematically injured and beaten down a whole other people was exponentially worse and of greater magnitude than other sins.

 

As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine how black boys my age dealt with their rage toward white bullies. My only fear in dealing with bullies was that they would beat me up unless I was successful in beating them. Young black men, feeling their manhood, were told by their elders not to fight back because it might cost them their lives. White men might kill them for being uppity or they might disappear into the prison archipelago stretching across the south. Prison labor was such that businesses and plantations bought and sold convicts just like in the old days of slavery.

 

While researching and writing The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, a memoir of my experiences as an adult in the civil rights movement, I could not avoid asking why so few white southerners took part in the front lines of the struggle that came to be known as the Second American Civil War. Why did white southerners leave the heavy lifting to our black brothers and sisters and their Northern allies? Why were the overwhelming majority of Germans “good Germans” during the holocaust? One day I tried to think of a white southern slaveholder who, at the height of his or her power, wealth, and political influence, freed their slaves to become an active abolitionist. I confess I could not find a single one.

 

Answering my own question, I reasoned that during slavery, whites across the nation, especially the south, maintained that institution through force, violence and terror. To enslave a fellow human being is an act of war against that person. In order to war against a person or a people, it becomes necessary to learn to hate that person, “those people”.

 

In order to own a human, as opposed to say, a mule, the owner or slaveholder must deny the humanity of that man, woman or child. So, growing up in south Alabama among a people who had, for centuries, practiced treating people like objects or mules, I was expected to go and do likewise. In order to accomplish this degree of dehumanization, the ruling race suffers a shriveling of its own soul and spirit.

 

Over time, farm children, trying to get over their tender heartedness when killing chickens, rabbits, pigs and other livestock, manage to harden their hearts. In the same way, many southerners get over their innate dislike of mistreating others. They teach themselves and their children that “Blacks aren’t the same as you and I and so it is okay to mistreat them”.

 

Eventually, in an effort to gain understanding of my memory flashes of childhood, I looked up racial incidents that occurred in southeast Alabama when I was little. Maybe something happened before I was born that people were still talking about — something so horrible that it still lives in the unconscious of the people of Alabama and northwest Florida. I found records of the death of a twenty-three year old black man in south Alabama, just before I was born. Walter White, the courageous anti-lynching NAACP investigator, uncovered this horrific story while launching a national campaign against lynching.

 

On October 19, 1934, Claude Neal, 23 was arrested for the murder of Lola Cannidy, 20. Neal worked on a peanut farm where a confession was wrung from Neal, under torture, accepting responsibility for the crime. The Sheriff, aware of the lynching spirit, which was beginning to rise throughout the land, took Neal 20 miles to Chipley, Florida, for safekeeping. With Neal when arrested were his mother, Annie Smith and his aunt, Sallie Smith.

 

Claude Neal was lynched in a lonely spot about four miles from Greenswood, Florida, scene of the recent crime. After Neal was taken from the jail at Brewton, Alabama (moved there supposedly for his protection), he was driven approximately 200 miles over highway 231 leading into Marianna and from there he was subjected to the most brutal and savage torture imaginable.

 

Neal was taken from the Brewton jail between one and two o’clock Friday morning, October 26. He was in the hands of the smaller lynching group composed of approximately 100 men from then until he was left in the road in front of the Cannidy home late that same night. Neal was tortured for ten or twelve hours. The original mob that took Neal from jail directed “all of the niceties of a twentieth century lynching … inflicted upon Neal.” The word was passed all over northeastern Florida and southeastern Alabama that there was to be a “lynching party to which all white people are invited.”

 

Railroad companies in several southern states laid on special trains, transporting thousands to Southeast Alabama. The owners, happy to turn a profit, may have felt like ticket sellers at the Roman Coliseum, where Christians were fed to lions, but that feeling is not recorded in the NAACP records. Needless to say, merchants in and near my hometown must have had a field day supplying thousands of mob members with rope, food and drink.

 

Neal’s body was tied to a rope on the rear of an automobile and dragged over the highway to the Cannidy home. Here a mob estimated to number somewhere between 3000 and 7000 people from eleven southern states was excitedly waiting his arrival. When the car dragging Neal’s body came to the Cannidy home, a man who was riding the rear bumper cut the rope.

 

A woman came out of the Cannidy house and drove a butcher knife into his heart. Then the crowd came by kicking him, some drove their cars over him.

 

Men, women, and children were numbered in the vast throng that came to witness the lynching, October 27, 1934. Pictures of the mutilated form sold for fifty cents each. Fingers and toes from Neal’s body became souvenirs in Marianna, Florida where one man offered to divide the finger with a friend “as a special favor.” Another had a finger preserved in alcohol.

 

Little children, some of them mere tots, who lived in the Greenwood neighborhood, waited with sharpened sticks for the return of Neal’s body and, when it rolled in the dust on the road that awful night, these little children drove their weapons deep into the flesh of the dead man.

 

Later Claude Neal’s body was hung high in the town square, casting a long shadow over the seething crowd. Claude McKay describes the scene with icy brevity.

 

The ghastly body swaying in the sun?
The women thronged to look, but never a one?
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;?
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,?
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.
— From “The Lynching” by Claude McKay

 

The gristly case of Claude Neal illustrates the emotional and spiritual damage that racism and its practices have done to my family and to me.

 

Imagine an entire region of people who mistreated black people, a mild and profoundly understated way of describing the terrible institution of slavery, from 1617 to 1865, a period of more than two hundred years. Now, think of the same people re-enslaving black people under Jim Crow, the sharecropper and prisoners-for-purchase systems for the hundred years leading up to 1965.

 

If you can imagine growing up in such a region, you will have some understanding of what I experienced. That was the region of my childhood and adolescence and those were the people — friends, fellow church members, family, and acquaintances — I grew up around. They were people so steeped in racism and self-hatred that nothing was as it seemed to be.

 

Would not such people have shriveled hearts? Small hearts don’t have room for the milk of human kindness. It is difficult for me to believe that these are the people I grew up with and looked up to. Is this why the South today constitutes a lowland where acidic puddles of racist poison stagnate, especially among the older population? Only 11% of white people who voted in Alabama managed to pull the lever for our first black president, Barack Obama. White southerners still call him “the foreigner,” thus rejecting the legitimacy of a black President.

 

How different is it today from the time that Claude Neal was the forty-fifth lynching since FDR entered the White House on March 4, 1933?

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