Southern White Activists on Why They Joined the Movement  
An Email Thread
Reber Boult, Gene Guerrero, Bruce Smith
July 2018

[This email thread prompted by Part II: Son of the South, LVBX Magaine, July 2018.]

Reber Boult, 7/26

For a while now I've been puzzling over how I'd answer the question: "Why did you get involved in civil rights?" Back when I did it, that question never occurred to me — it was just what I thought needed doing. Now after a good many years, I still don't have a better answer — it just was what needed doing.

My puzzling over it has led me to be particularly attentive to applying the question to Southerners, particularly white Southerners (I was born and raised in a family of Mississippians in Nashville and made frequent visits to Mississippi plus a couple of lengthy sojourns there).

I never gave it the kind of critical thought that Bob [Zellner] describes. Again, I just did it because it needed doing. I was a bit late in aligning myself there but I got there, first through SSOC, then SNCC in its Black Power period (that's another story). ACLU was deeply involved too.

Maybe some of you can fill me in on my mental processes on this. Whatever's to be said about it, I sure am glad it happened.

 —  Reber Boult


Gene Guerrero, 7/29

Reber, et. al:

I've also been thinking much about the question of how I got involved. Much of it, I think, was just good luck. Had I gone out of the South to college I likely would not have gotten involved.

In more recent years I've decided that for me growing up in the Baptist church was very important. The contrast between what was preached and the complicity with segregation forced me to act when a white minister was locked up for trying to attend services with some blacks at a church where I used to play basketball. Also in high school I read lots and lots about WW II and went to schools where there were many Jews. So in my early college years when I began to see what was happening to blacks, the analogies seemed clear.

My mother grew up on a cotton plantation in the Arkansas delta managed by her mother and step father. I don't remember real conversations with my parents about civil rights. But my mother and her mother did convey to me that "Nigras" should not be treated badly because it was not their fault that they were born that way. They would never have used the "N" word and really tried to be good Christians. My Mexican father attended high school and college in the states. Once when I was young our family was returning to Dallas from a visit with my Arkansas grandmother. An elderly black man filled the car up with gas at a station. My father called him "Sir" which even at that young age I somehow realized was making a statement.

Recently I read Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South by John Egerton. Somehow I missed it when it came out in 1994. Really interesting. For most of them, as for most of us, there were transition organizations that helped us see what was wrong and pushed us to take the next steps. For many active in the early responses to the imposition of segregation the YMCA and YWCAs were important. The Methodist church is often cited.

 — Gene


Bruce Smith 7/30

Gene and Reber got me to thinking about my relationship to "the church" and how I got into the civil rights movement. I grew up in a "Southern" Methodist church in Falls Church, Virginia. The "Northern" Methodist church was a mile or so away. But in Sunday school we sang a hymn about how "Jesus loved the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they were precious in his sight". Of course, I believed the words of that song. The minister of that church, Rev. Richard Robinson had been there for several years. Besides Sunday sermons, he had preached my father's funeral service, my sister's wedding and my closest brothers funeral.

The last of those was in February of 1962. My brother was killed while training for "close air-ground combat" in what we would only later realize was the [then] secret US war in SE Asia. From that time until August of 1963, I was in somewhat of a state of hysteria. Late in the spring of 1962, I was told that while I was in a Sunday school class with other teenagers, Rev Robertson's sermon had been interrupted by the chairman of the Churches Board of Trustees. He stood and condemned Rev Robinson for inviting black ministers, among others, to meet with other Methodist ministers at our church the week before. And not one soul, especially not one man dared to stand up and tell Mr. Shreve to shut up and sit down. Mr. Shreve owned a fuel oil business and was one off the wealthiest people in town. What set me to leaving the church was the fact that no one stood in defense of Rev. Robinson. Leaving that area, I went off to school at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia, still doing a slow burn.

What saved me from a downward slide was the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. As a rather liberal, young Republican activist, working a summer job for the City of DC, for the first time in my life, I argued with grown men about civil rights and racism in the weeks before that march. Not believing the hysteria that there would be a "race riot" on that day in August, I said I would come in to work although the City had given all its employees the day off. The city was occupied by the 82nd Airborne and those few of us who came to work that day were told to unload our trucks and be ready to drive over to the national mall to pick up "the dead and wounded."

That morning, I watched with great pleasure as hundreds of cars passed our shop, each car full of black people in church clothes and headed to the March. Sometime that afternoon, a call came that we could go home since it was clear that nothing bad was going to happen on the mall. I thought about trying to find my way to the mall but all roads between us and the mall were blocked by soldiers or police. So, I went home ... pledging that I would find some way to get into the civil rights movement.

I found a new, rather small, group of friends at school and within three months was picketing the local newspaper. Word of that picket got to civil rights activists, and several of us from Lynchburg, Virginia were invited to the founding meeting of the Southern Student Organizing Committee in Nashville, Tennessee the following April. After that, my life would have a purpose other than drinking, dancing and wondering when I was going to die.

Bruce Smith

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