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Feb 23, 2011 11:09 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Freedom Rider Celebrates 50 Year Anniversary

Feb 23, 2011 11:09 AM

Southampton resident Bob Zellner never imagined he would be sitting down at a country store in Alabama eating breakfast with Sonny Kyle Livingston, a Ku Klux Klan member who—exactly 50 years ago—threatened to kill him.

But that’s just where he found himself last week, in preparation for an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s television show to mark the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s Freedom Rides.

“It was strange, to say the least,” Mr. Zellner said on Tuesday, “especially when the policeman who was with him said that Sonny Kyle never goes anywhere unarmed. That’s the point [when] he pulled out his pistol. That was a little hairy.”

It is safe to say that Mr. Livingston, who is infamous for being photographed hitting a black woman over the head with a baseball bat during the heart of the civil rights movement, did not remember Mr. Zellner or recognize his role as a Freedom Rider, one of the many activists who rode interstate buses and trains into the segregated South to test two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that outlawed the segregation of interstate travel facilities. They were often met with racism and brutal violence—some of it committed by Mr. Livingston—and usually jailed.

The first Freedom Ride left from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. Exactly 50 years later, ABC’s “The Oprah Winfrey Show” will air a Freedom Ride anniversary show, featuring Mr. Zellner and footage from his interview with Mr. Livingston. From February 13 to 15, two producers followed Mr. Zellner around Montgomery, Alabama, taping his interviews with Klansmen and police officers—some reformed since their violent encounters with the Freedom Riders, some not.

“It was exhilarating being back,” said Mr. Zellner, a native of Alabama. “One of the Klansmen we talked to said, ‘I’ve come to see that Bob was right and I was wrong.’”

Several of Mr. Zellner’s interview subjects have been asked to attend the final taping of the anniversary show in Chicago on April 28, which will round up some of the 250 Freedom Riders for a reunion, he said.

“Another couple I talked to in Alabama, who have been invited, broke down into tears and said they regretted throwing a fire bomb into one of the buses all of their lives,” he said. “They had gotten over their racism and wanted to apologize by meeting some of the Freedom Riders.”

Through the end of May, the 71-year-old Mr. Zellner is booked solid with a lecture series that will take him as far as France and Germany, intermingled with several reunions and tours—all commemorating the anniversary of the first Freedom Ride.

After all, Mr. Zellner was there. On that fateful day in May, Mr. Zellner and several of his classmates from Huntingdon College infiltrated a swarming, angry mob to protect the Freedom Riders on a bus arriving in Montgomery. At its peak, the crowd swelled to 1,000 people, he said.

“The Klan stopped the bus, blew out the tires and burned the bus up with the Freedom Riders on board,” Mr. Zellner remembered. “Everybody escaped, but some were really injured for life. It was such a murderous mob that they were really attempting to kill the Freedom Riders, attacking them with bricks, leaving some for dead in the streets.”

That September, after he graduated, he joined the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as its field secretary, landing him a seat in the last Freedom Ride: a train traveling from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia, in December 1961. He was jailed, just one of his 18 arrests throughout seven states. “This movement was the greatest thing that could ever exist,” he said.

The grandson and son of Klansmen, Mr. Zellner was raised in East Brewton, Alabama—a small town separated from Brewton by Murder Creek. “It was one of the lower rungs of hell,” he recalled. “Everyone always told me when I was growing up that I was on the wrong side of Murder Creek.”

The jab inspired the title for his memoir, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek,” which was published in 2008 and is now the inspiration behind a Spike Lee-backed film, tentatively titled “Son of the South,” that will depict portions of Mr. Zellner’s life growing up in Alabama and battling racism.

Mr. Zellner was the first member of his family to officially break away from the Klan, he said. “My cousin told me at my grandmother’s funeral that if we weren’t there at that moment, he would kill me,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Charles, we’re cousins,’ and he said, ‘Yes, and I would kill you.’”

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Extraordinary story, extraordinary man. I've heard him speak and the stories he tells are hair raising and deeply thought provoking. He's very graciously spoken to classes in our schools over the years and the kids were riveted by what he had to tell them in his soft spoken way.
By goldenrod (505), southampton on Feb 27, 11 12:17 PM
Please tell me how I can find out what time the show on FREEDOM RIDERS will be on May 4, the Oprah Winfrey Show. I have been searching for 2 hours on Google. No luck.

I searched for an hour on her web site at www.oprah.com where I found no schedule. Then, I

searched on channel 279, which is DIRECTV on my menu of shows and did not find anything on May 4th. I also searched:

http://www.oprah.com/own/tv-schedule/index.html?date=2011-05-04&stype=daily

and did ...more
By Joy@EndAllViolence (1), Phoenix on May 1, 11 6:18 PM