Around the Island

A conversation on a crisis: Library event brings authors together

His involvement with the civil rights movement began as a college sociology project.

But one meeting at Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s Montgomery church with Dr. Martin Luther King changed his life forever. Robert (Bob) Zellner, a white Alabamian whose grandfather and father were once members of the Ku Klux Klan, became a civil rights hero whose activism continues to this day.

Bob will be interviewed via Zoom in the Shelter Island Library’s Friday Night Dialogues series on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. 

His 2008 autobiography, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek,” has been made into a movie produced by Spike Lee titled, “Son of the South,” which has just been released. Bob will be interviewed by fellow Alabamian and historian Diane McWhorter, whose book “Carry Me Home:  Birmingham, Ala., the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” won the Pulitzer Prize.

Bob’s early activism took him to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where he became their first white field secretary. He visited colleges and recruited socially conscious white students to the cause, but also organized non-violent demonstrations, which through no intent of his group, often became violent on the white side.

He was arrested 18 times during the course of five years. Assaults and death threats were common. 

After leaving SNCC, Bob continued his activism, which included helping disadvantaged Whites as well as Blacks in the Poor People’s Campaign. He was associated with the Southern Conference Educational Fund and the Grass Roots Organizing Work (GROW), which he helped to found.

In his later years, Bob moved to the East End where, among other things, his activism continued on behalf of the Shinnecock Nation. Not long ago he returned to the South as a healthcare advocate.

But these “life facts” don’t do justice to the life he’s led. Interviews with Bob include charming as well as harrowing stories and humor interspersed with amazing courage. This is a program that should not be missed.

Ms. McWhorter, herself a scholar of the civil rights movement, has contributed numerous articles on the subject to newspapers and magazines, in addition to her book.

She has also written a history of the civil rights movement for young adults, “A Dream of Freedom.” Diane is currently writing a book about Wernher von Braun and the U.S. space program in Huntsville, Ala.

Along with Bob, she has a passion for her home state with all its beauty and blemishes.

This event is the third of the series known as “Necessary Bridges,” a collaboration between the Shelter Island Public Library and the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance. The series, born from the Shelter Island student-led protests against racial inequality during the summer of 2020, seeks to promote education and better understanding of social justice issues.

Bonnie Stockwell, Alliance member and the inspiration behind “Necessary Bridges,” says, “We were so moved by the effort of Shelter Island’s youth in motivating the community that we wanted to keep the momentum going.” 

Terry Lucas, Shelter Island Librarian, immediately jumped in and became an invaluable partner.

The Feb. 19 program can be accessed through the Shelter Island Public Library website at shelterislandpubliclibrary.org. Pre-registration is required.

The members of the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance are: Lucille Buergers, Jessica Colas, Jim Colligan, Laurie Fanelli, Trish Gallagher, Nancy Green, Bonnie Stockwell, and Ryan Sultan, M.D.