50 Years of Poor People's Organizing:
An Interview with Bob Zellner

Originally published by Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice

Below is an interview with Bob Zellner, edited for length and clarity. Bob is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. He grew up in rural Alabama, the son and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members and ministers. While Bob was a kid, his father took the dangerous step of renouncing his Klan membership. The decision had a profound effect on Bob, who went on to be the first white field secretary for SNCC, in Mississippi. After SNCC became an all-black organization Bob joined the staff of SCEF, the Southern Conference Educational Fund. With Anne Braden, Dottie Zellner, and others, Bob founded the GROW Project (Grass Roots Organizing Work AKA Get Rid of Wallace).

Today, Bob plays an important role in North Carolina's Forward Together Moral Movement, mentoring young leaders and drawing on decades of experience to help guide the effort. He's also been a major force, along with Mayor Adam O'Neal of Belhaven, NC, behind The Walk from NC to DC to save rural hospitals, and brought the Kairos Center into that profoundly important endeavor.

Earlier this year, we invited Bob, along with other engaged scholars and organizers from around the world, to a strategic dialogue on the relationship between religions and social movements. There, we interviewed him about his own history, the work around rural hospitals, and the effort to build a new Poor People's Campaign for Today.

In his more than 50 years of organizing with the poor in Mississippi, Alabama and across the South, Bob faced considerable challenges to his work of bridging entrenched racism and prejudice. This came in multiple forms, including brutal confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan as well as skepticism around whether the racism of poor white southerners could ever be overcome. Bob addressed these challenges by showing what was, in fact, possible when people were given the opportunity to work together towards something bigger than what they were ever told was possible.


Race and Poor People's Organizing

Shailly Gupta Barne for Kairos Center:

Why did you get involved with the Civil Rights movement and poor people's organizing?

Bob Zellner:

All through my life a lot of people would read my name, they would assume that I'm from New York, I'm a Jew, and so on, not knowing that [my] Daddy's a Methodist preacher and a member of the Klan. There's not a lot of Jewish people who are members of the Klan. All through my Civil Rights career, people would say to me: "Why did you go South to help the Black people?" And I would say "Wrong, moose breath! Number one, I didn't go South, I was already there. Number two, I didn't do anything to help the Black people, I hope what I did helped Black people, but I got involved because I was not free. I was not free.


What was it like when you first became involved in the Civil Rights movement?


The Ku Klux Klan captured me at the first demonstration I was ever in — in McComb, Mississippi — they almost killed me that day. They beat me, really really bad. And I thought they were going to kill me in the street. And then they took me inside, and then later on they turned me over to the mob. And the mob had hangman's nooses. They intended to kill [me and the other protesters], intended to lynch us. They said, "We're going to hang you with this rope from that limb right there. And of course, being a sociologist, I began to get outside my body and think about what's happening here. And the first thing I thought was, "These people are over reacting," you know? This is my first demonstration. These people are over reacting! This is my first day out, and they're going to hang me. 50 Years of Poor People's OrganizingBob Zellner in the early days of SNCC, to the right of Julian Bond (center)


What was it like, later on, organizing with poor white communities in Mississippi, as part of an effort to build relationships across color lines?


We were organizing in Mississippi at the same time that Dr. King was murdered. We were doing grassroots organizing in Mississippi. Our project was called GROW — Grassroots Organizing Work, and Get Rid of Wallace. And one of things that we were doing was we were going into the areas that were particularly strong Klan strongholds. When people used to tell SNCC, "you can't organize in Mississippi," SNCC would say: "Okay, that's where we're going, we're going to Mississippi, because yes we can organize there and we've got to take this terror of lynching away from the enemy. We're not afraid, we know that we may die, but we're going to go ahead and do it anyway."

So what we started to do was to work with, first of all, the very poor people in the Delta that Mrs. [Fannie Lou] Hamer had worked with for years. And a lot of very poor white people in the Delta had come to the Head Start programs to get jobs, and also to have their kids have the benefit of the education. Mrs. Hamer was the first person — a Black Mississippian sharecropper — who helped launch the white people's organizing project in Mississippi. So we were working with her, and she says to us, "Well a lot of these people you have to work with them on a material basis: that they need a job, and they need their kids [to be taken care of]. And so whatever they feel about race, that's secondary to whatever they need." We extrapolated that to, if people need a good union, a good strong union, they're going to have to work Black and white together to get that.

The theory was that racism is very high up on the value system of a lot of white Southerners, but it's not always at the top. Maybe a strong union or a good education or better income and stuff might trump their racism.


So what did GROW do to get started?


We started in the [Mississippi] Delta and we eventually came to the conclusion that the people that Mrs. Hamer was working with were so poor and so far down that they needed social work, and we were in a little bit of danger of slipping into a social work organization. And we didn't intend to do social work. We had to do a certain amount of it, just to get our organizing done, but we understood that we needed to get to where the working people were because they had an organizational structure.

We started at Masonite Corporation when they went on a wildcat strike and some organizers from the Carolinas had come through.. And they said, "We went to the union hall in Laurel, Mississippi, and about 30 or 40 percent of the people in the union hall, in the meeting, were Black." So, now they're going on a wildcat strike and they're being kicked out of the union hall and they really need some help. So we investigated a little bit and that's where we started. And one of the workers was M.O. McCarty. M.O. McCarty was a worker in the plant, a member of the union, and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as a lot of them were. But he was a militant trade union guy, so were able to start working with him and some of the other Klan people on the basis of being trade unionists.


What was it like organizing with Klan members? How did they respond to the GROW project?


We made it very clear from the very beginning — GROW stands for Grassroots Organizing Work and it also means Get Rid of Wallace — and we opposed the Klan method of separating workers. We'd say, "You may be a Klansman, you may be a racist, but if you want a union and you want GROW project to work with you, [you need to understand that] we're from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, we're from SCEF, the Southern Conference Educational Fund." And they knew these organizations. SCEF was on billboards in the South — pictures of Martin Luther King, Myles Horton, Aubrey Williams and others, pictures of all the people that we knew were on these billboards that said: "Communist Training School, Highlander Folk School." And we said we all associate with the Highlander Folk School.

So we'd say if you work with us the FBI's going to come and tell you that we're dangerous Communists. And I said, "I've been arrested for criminal anarchy, I've been arrested under the John Brown statue for insurrection." So the old Klansmen would hit the table and say, "You think you're the only one being messed over by the FBI? They follow us all the time! You think you're the only one that's been charged with shit? We've been charged with everything too!" So we began form a kind of camaraderie around that. 50 Years of Poor People's OrganizingFrom the GROW Project in Laurel, MS


How did this relationship change as you began working together?


I'm just going to tell you about M.O. [McCarty]. He started having me come stay with him at his house all the time and one night he said, "Bob, you know I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan." He said, "I still go to meetings but I'm not with them anymore." And he showed me his arsenal, the most brutal arsenal of weapons, home-made weapons, all kinds of stuff that you can imagine. I mean he wanted me to know for sure, since he was going through a transition, he wanted me to know for sure how bad he, M.O. McCarty, had been.

And Walter Collins was one of our few African American staff people. This was the time of Black Power, SNCC had become all Black. But we couldn't do the organizing project of GROW, which had been presented as a SNCC project, if we were organizing white people just as white people. We said: "We have to organize in a interracial way. Whatever you guys do, you go for yourself, and we're going to organize." We said, "You want us to go organize as white people? That's what we're supposed to do? We can't organize them as white people. We're going to have to have an interracial staff." So, Walter Collins, he was a member of the New Republic of Africa, so he was a very militant dude. But he saw the necessity of working with poor white people.

And M.O. McCarty always wanted Walter to come and stay with him. So here's the old Klansman, and his favorite people were me and Walter.

Walter would say to me, "Bob, do I have to go stay at M.O.'s this weekend?" I'd say, "Yeah Walter, you know, M.O. likes for you to stay over there." And so he says, "Well, it's okay, but you know M.O. and his wife they go to sleep as soon as it gets dark and the daughter," who's about 18 or 19, "she wants to play Bob Dylan and she wants to dance." This is the white daughter of an old Mississippi Klansman, and a very dark Walter Collins, and Walter says, "I don't know what to do." I said, "Well, just be cool man."

But, you know, M.O. would get up in the morning, at 5 o'clock in the morning, and get all his leaflets together, and he and Walter, the old white Klansman that everybody knows is a Klansman, and this young Black organizer, going all out through Laurel, Mississippi, distributing the literature about "Come to the working people's rally".


And how did others react to this inter-racial organizing?


One day, a group from California who had been supporting us came, two people, man and a woman. They'd been giving us a lot of money for the organizing. They would come to New Orleans, and they would always want to go to Mississippi and see the project, see the people. So they came down and we drove up to Mississippi in their El Dorado Cadillac. And M.O. McCarty was the person who was supposed to be the host for that day. Whenever there were people from outside, the local union or the working people's committee would appoint somebody to be the host. So M.O. was the host, and we went to the meeting at the community house that Sunday morning, and then in the afternoon there was a big rally in the next county. We had 1,500, 2,000 workers, half Black, half white, half with Wallace stickers and half with NAACP stickers, in the cow pasture meeting together. This is in 1968, '69, in Mississippi.

On the way out there, this woman from California says, "Well tell me, Mr. McCarty", referring to my white Mississippi friend, "what do you think of the Negroes?" So, M.O. said, "Oh, I get along fine with them, some of my best friends are Black." And then he said, "The only thing I don't want is to have to eat with them or have one marry my daughter." The typical line, right? So, that was a conversation stopper.

When we got to the rally, M.O. kind of wandered off, so the woman turned to me and she said, "How can you work with people like that?" And I said, "Well, that's the people we supposed to be working with! What do you think?" She asked me, "Well, didn't you hear what he said?" And I said, "Of course I heard what he said, but I think you're missing the point." She said, "What do you mean?"

So M.O. was over talking to some of his old Klan buddies and I waved to him, I said, "M.O.! Come here!" So he comes back over and I said, "M.O., where did you have dinner today?" He said, "Over at the community house." I said, "M.O., did you stand up when you ate dinner?" He said "No, I sat at the table with everybody else." I said, "Do you remember who was sitting there?" He said, "Well, Ivory Gary was on my right and James Nealy was on my left." And I said, "What color is Mr. Gary?" He said, "He's Black." I said, "What about James Nealy?" He said, "He's Black." And I said, "M.O. if you don't have better luck with your daughter than you're having with your eating, you're going to be in really big trouble." So M.O. slapped his knee and he said, "I see what you talking about!" And I already knew that his daughter was wanting to dance to Bob Dylan records with Walter Collins.

So, you see, we knew that people's rhetoric can be the last thing that'll change. We told them we don't care what you believe as long as you act in an equal way, knowing that people don't want a disconnect between what they're doing and what they're thinking, and [their thinking] begins to change. But that's just one story, that's our poor people's organizing.


Looking at the example of that transformation, what lessons do you think we can draw from that experience for our work in building a New Poor People's Campaign for today?


Well, later on that same afternoon, M.O. McCarty and these two California people were in the home of Orange Harrington. He was a member of the Unitarian Universalist church in Big Creek, Mississippi. Now Orange Harrington was a union official, and he was a socialist, and he's talking to the California people about how mean and nasty the Klan is, and he's really talking to M.O. McCarty. And M.O. and I are pretending to watch the football game, while they're talking politics. Orange Harrington is blasting the Ku Klux Klan, and there's M.O. McCarty, a fellow union member, who's a member of the Klan.

So you've got a socialist white Mississippian and a unionist, and a Klansman, and finally M.O. says, "Okay Orange, I know you're talking about me." And he says, "I'll tell you this, Orange, I've always been a joiner. Whenever I went to church, and I went to a lot of different churches, if it was the Baptist church and they opened the doors to the church, I joined. If it was a Methodist church that opened the doors, I joined." He said, "I think I've joined the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and several holiness groups." He says, "So I've always been a joiner, and I did join the Ku Klux Klan, and I'm not even supposed to say that, as you know. And I joined the Ku Klux Klan, but now I have joined the Civil Rights. I've joined the Civil Rights now."

And one of things I want to tell you as young organizers, the last thing that liberals or progressives or political militants who are white want to do is talk to people who are actually white racists. That's the last thing they want to do. To be in their homes, to be in their weddings, in their funerals, and in their churches, you know. But when we do SNCC-type organizing we become part of the community. This is the kind of organizing that goes on. I mean this is up close and personal. This is engaged. These were people that worked in the plant together for 20 years now. [Orange] is still carrying the cudgels against the Klan, and the Klan is saying, you know, well, we were wrong.

You know, Laurel, Mississippi, is where the killers of the three Civil Rights workers in '64 were from. That was masterminded right out of Laurel. So when we were organizing in Laurel we were organizing in the mouth of the Klan, and we went directly at the Klan members and we organized them away from the Klan. So it could still be done today.


The Walk to Save Rural Hospitals


In 2014, the Forward Together Moral Movement from North Carolina connected with Mayor Adam O'Neal from Belhaven, NC, a small town in the Southeast part of the state. Belhaven's only hospital and emergency room was shut down by Vidant Health last year. After Vidant was been brought in by the town to help manage the hospital, they created a new board under their control. The board decided to close the hospital down, which meant that people in and around Belhaven had to drive an extra 30 miles to the nearest emergency room, to a hospital that Vidant itself owns. Soon after the closure, a woman named Portia Gibbs had a heart attack. She died in a parking lot waiting for a helicopter to come take her to Vidant's hospital those additional 30 miles away.

Mayor O'Neal decided that drastic measures were needed to get the hospital open again, so he planned to walk hundreds of miles from Belhaven to Washington, D.C., in memory of Portia Gibbs, to draw attention to the issue. He was joined by Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Forward Together Moral Movement who supported this life-and-death struggle for health care. After attending the send-off rally, Bob walked with Mayor O'Neal almost the whole way.

This year, Mayor O'Neal and Bob organized The Walk again, this time broadening the fight from just one hospital to the 283 hospitals around the country in danger of being closed. Reach more about this year's walk at their website, and on our blog.


Can you tell us about Mayor Adam O'Neal and the kind of leader he is?


The reason Adam O'Neal is Mayor O'Neal today is because Black mentors took him in hand early on. They had gone to school with him in High School and seen something in his spirit. And he said he wanted to run for mayor, and they said "You want to be mayor? We can make you mayor."

One of the first things that Arthur [Butch], who took Adam under his wing, says to Adam is, "Have you been to a Black church service?" Adam says, "Well, no." "Well, you're going to need to do that." So the next Sunday, Adam, for the first time in his life, went to a Black Baptist church. And he said, "You know, I'm not much for holding hands or hugging and everything, but this big black deacon met me at the front door with a hand about this big, full of callouses and everything, strong farmworker or maybe works in the pulpwood industry or something." He said, "That black deacon took my hand in his big old paw and he didn't let me go for two hours." He told me, "All day that deacon stuck with me." So he started to learn about the culture.

And then Adam had enough sense to say to Butch and Greg and the other Black leaders in the community, "What do people want?" And they said, "We want the bench back." And he said, "What's the bench?" They said, "Well, you remember that big old church pew that they put out on the street and our guys rescued it and put it under the tree over in front of the store on the street and that's where everybody gathered. That's where the men and the women would gather when they had time during the day to go sit and talk." And he said, "The city said it was an eye sore and they took our bench away." And Adam says, "Well I tell you one thing, if I get to be mayor, you get your bench back." So when they elected him mayor, he became mayor at midnight, whatever the night was, and he and Arthur and Greg, they all got together and got the bench and they put it back in the same spot. By daylight the next morning everybody was lined up on the bench.

Adam also said it had never occurred to him that there's open ditches and no sidewalks outside the white part of town, never any mowing or anything over there, very few street lights or anything. And he said when they took him to the Black cemetery he just broke down into tears because they had had the hurricane and he didn't realize that in the poor cemetery the caskets all popped out of the ground because it flooded and the caskets are hermetically sealed. He said there were bones, busted graves and everything. So they fixed all that up. He says it's slow going but they're making a difference.


What's Mayor O'Neal's relationship with Moral Mondays?


Adam likes Dr. Barber so much, Dr. Barber came and did the 4th of July parade in Belhaven. So here's big Black Dr. Barber and the white mayor riding on the fire truck leading the 4th of July parade — thousands and thousands of white people, and Black people, too. But this kind of welding that's going on, together.

And Adam now organizes non-violent workshops for he and I and other people to run. We've been doing typical classical SNCC nonviolent workshops, doing lunch counters, marches, how do you organize picket lines, how do you have spokespeople, for sometimes 100, 125 people, 50-60 percent of them might be white. A good percentage of Black people, but lots of white people in there.

This to me as an organizer, I mean what kind of opportunity do you ever have for something like that, at the grassroots? I mean these people, some of them are true right-wingers, who are beginning to change but they don't even realize the extent to which they're changing just by doing the things they've already done.


And what precipitated this action around the Belhaven hospital closures?


Well, Belhaven is in Beaufort County and just east of that is the largest county in North Carolina, which is also the most sparsely populated, and the poorest. So the two counties together are the poorest areas [in the state]. There's a Hill-Burton hospital from 1945 there, the first one ever built, a historic hospital. And this Vidant corporation comes in and thinks absolutely nothing of coming in with the intention of closing and destroying the hospital, so that people would have to go 30 more miles to their hospital in Washington, North Carolina, which is also a feeder hospital to their hospital further west in Greenville, so they can make more money. [Vidant] already has 700 million dollars in reserve, — a non-profit organization. And the CEO makes 2 million dollars a year.

The hospital board is headed by Art Keeney who is from Engelhard, North Carolina, which is about 80 miles east of Belhaven. Those people used to have to come 60 or 80 miles to Belhaven, now they have to add another 30 on that, 100 miles or so, or over. Those people are dying down there. And Art Keeney, he's in charge of economic development for all of eastern North Carolina and his idea of economic development is to close the hospital and destroy a two or three county area.

But [the fact is] it didn't have to be closed, not for financial reasons or anything. I mean, for financial reasons, to enrich a tremendously wealthy corporation that already has almost a billion dollars, and because you lost maybe a million dollars in a year when the CEO makes 2 million dollars? Vidant wanted to close the hospital and they kept pumping money into it and charging expenses from other hospitals to Belhaven that it didn't even incur. The whole salary of the hospital manager — he was only there two days a week — was charged to the hospital. So they loaded up this hospital with all of this stuff and unnecessary people and all kinds of things to show that it's losing money so they can close the hospital.

So, in Belhaven, Vidant lied about it — they said they had lost a million dollars so they had to close it. Well they intended to close it when they moved there [and took over the hospital]. And they did that because it was the poorest area, heavily Black, the county is probably 70 percent Black, and a Democratic area basically, with the aberration of being represented by this Republican mayor. And the whole economy of the area depends on this hospital.

Now what if your child gets hit and you need to have them be 5 minutes from emergency care rather than half an hour. And it might mean the difference between that child surviving. A 16 year old was just run over the other day in Belhaven and since the ambulances were off somewhere else, there's no emergency room there anymore, they had to wait on the helicopter. And he's bleeding, he's badly badly injured. And the helicopter gets there and they said he's too unstable to go on the helicopter now. So he was maybe 5 minutes from the emergency room at Belhaven [which had been closed], he would've been there, he would've had blood, he would've had doctors and he would've had trained people within 5 minutes. And he died the next day because there was an hour and a half before he could get any medical attention. He just bled to death basically, a 16 year old. It strikes all ages but that is the main worry that people have in Belhaven. People are going to leave who have young children, because it's a fishing community, it's a boating community, hunting, farming, all kinds of things. This young 16 year old, if he'd been taken right to the hospital he'd at least of had a chance that he could've lived, but once there's no hospital there it means he dies.

What Adam says is that they underestimated the people [in Belhaven], because the people are used to hurricanes, they're fishing people, they work in the woods, timber, they're farmers, resilient people. He says they totally disregarded the fact that they were resilient people that were survivors, and that they by-golly were going to fight if they had the right leadership and Adam was there to give the leadership.


This year's walk from NC to DC


So what happened with the Health Care March last year? How did you get involved?


I didn't go to Belhaven last year and say "Oh I'm here I'm going to march with you," I just went with Rev. Barber to get [the walk] kicked off and we were doing whatever organizing we could to make it a success. I remember it was July, 101 temperature, middle of the day. It was about the dumbest thing you could possibly do. We had a press conference with Rev. Barber and Adam and all of the people wanting to get the hospital back. So I just set off with the others.

And I didn't plan to go on the whole thing, but after the second day they were down to like 2 people or 3 people, and pretty soon it was just me and Adam. And we're walking along and it's me, and Adam, and Adam's mother, Pam. Three people, way out in the middle of nowhere. We got treed by some dogs one time. We got stopped on this back road and we couldn't get past the dog. But anyway, Adam he says to me "Bob, why are you still here?" He was thinking it would just be him and his mother now, walking on the march. And I said, "Well, two marches in my whole life that I know of that were single people marching. And one was William Moore, postman from Baltimore marching in Alabama — he was shot and killed. And James Meredith marching by himself in Mississippi was shot and could've been killed." And I said, "I'm just not going to, no matter what is going on out there, whatever things I have going on, and the fact that my feet are totally destroyed, I'm going to be here with you, you know, for the duration."

And that's the kind of bonding, you see, because I recognize in him the kind of person that you look for. He's like a white Fannie Lou Hamer. He's a little mayor waiting there in Belhaven, mentored by these Black people, Republican, white, stepping across boundaries.


What happened after the Walk last year?


Well, we've had some real victories. They've got the hospital back now [in Belhaven], but now comes the point of having to crank it up again. They had done a lot of damage to the building. They intended to bulldoze the building but we got a temporary restraining order to stop them from destroying the building. And all the people of Belhaven now are ready to come as witnesses. We're hoping to get 10 million dollars now from Vidant to open up the hospital [in Belhaven].


What's been Vidant's response?


They've reverted to some of the old tactics, which have backfired on them badly. They've said that mayor Adam is a favorite now on Moscow television, that he was on some kind of Russian program and that Al Jazeera has been covering him and the Guardian, the well known radical newspaper in Britain has been, too.

So they're red-baiting, but red-baiting doesn't work in the same way that it used to work now. And people say "Well they must be pretty desperate if they're accusing Adam O'Neal of being a communist." And they've tried to undermine him in the community but people know him too well. And he's just that kind of guy, he's just there and he continues to work with people.


What was the idea behind this year's walk?


Well, Adam went last year to the national convention of the Association of Rural Hospitals, a thousand hospitals around the country. And he found 283 other hospitals around the country who are closing, about to close, or just closed. And so at that meeting, he had said the idea came to him to have a reprise of the march from Belhaven to DC, but this time make it national. And he said we want a representative, a walker from each state, because there's one or two of those hospitals that are closing in every state. Most of them are in the South but many of them are in the North. 50 Years of Poor People's OrganizingThe Walk arrives in DC

And I mean it's cold and cynical and people will die. What Adam says is if 283 hospitals close around the country for similar reasons, two thousand eight hundred people a year will die unnecessarily, which is like a 9/11 every year, for the next 25-30 years. And it costs less to keep these hospitals open, than it will to close them — the long run expenses [of closing them] will be much greater. The deterioration of the health, the chronic diseases and all these things that people deal with. If you're not close to a hospital, you're not going to go get help for your diabetes or other problems until it's so bad that you have to go to the emergency room at the big hospital.

From June 1-15 of this year, the Kairos Center joined the Walk From NC to DC, a 283 mile march from Belhaven, NC, to Washington D.C., to save 283 rural hospitals that are being threatened or scheduled to close across the country. We met up with Bob, Mayor O'Neal, Rev. Barber, and leaders from Tennessee, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, North Carolina and more who were committing themselves to the right to health care and to save these hospitals.

The Walk was a clear expression of the problems facing our society today, and the kinds of responses that are sorely needed, especially around our right to health care. Indeed, a human right to health care isn't limited to questions of profitability or even affordability. Instead, it asks whether we are meeting the health care needs of our families, children, veterans, and broader communities and if not, how we can and must do so. In this way, the Walk from NC to DC was an expression of what a New Poor People's Campaign for Today looks like — bringing people together across race, age, and geography to raise the question of how we meet our most basic human needs in a time of plenty.

The power of this moment is in the people who are calling out the immorality of the current system and demanding that we seize the opportunities made possible today. And while we walked for rural hospitals, we all know that this is only the beginning

Copyright © Bob Zellner. 2020

Copyright ©
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories above belong to the authors or speakers. Webspinner: webmaster@crmvet.org
(Labor donated)