Apr. 27—Bob Zellner's first-ever civil rights march culminated in a violent brawl. He feared for his life.
Now 84, Zellner recounted the story calmly to Frederick County students and residents on Wednesday evening.
It was 1961 in Mississippi, and Zellner was a rare pale face in a crowd of Black activists protesting the recent murder of an African American man at the hands of a white state lawmaker.
Zellner, who grew up in Alabama and is descended from members of the Ku Klux Klan, was severely beaten that day.
In an auditorium at Hood College on Wednesday, he matter-of-factly described how hordes of men attempted to remove his eyeballs while he clung to a metal pole.
But his first march wasn't his last: Zellner remained an activist for decades. He went on to help organize the Freedom Rides, worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis, and is recognized today as a key figure in the civil rights movement.
"I think there's a new spark in the movement now," he said Wednesday. "And I feel the fire here."
Zellner's visit was part of a program sponsored by Hood College and Frederick County Public Schools.
In the morning, about 200 middle and high school students from across FCPS heard Zellner speak and asked him questions. In the evening, the community at large was invited to do the same.
Carrie Artis, FCPS' equity director, said the experience was invaluable for students.
"This is our curriculum living and breathing in front of us," she said.
While Zellner addressed students, "you could have heard a pin drop," Artis said.
After hearing from him, students at the morning session split up into breakout sessions to discuss what they learned.
Many students reflected on how relatively recent the civil rights movement was, despite how distant history textbooks can make it seem, Artis said.
Zellner's story inspired the 2021 Spike Lee film "Son of the South."
During the evening session, a student from Linganore High School's student newspaper asked him how accurate the film was.
Zellner responded that because he was the main character, the movie made his contributions to the movement seem grander than they really were. In reality, he said, he was merely one part of an effort that owes its ultimate success to thousands of people.
Today, Zellner leads tours for educators and others to the Deep South, where he revisits significant sites and recounts his many stories.
Though the memories are often traumatic, he said, he is proud of them, too.
"It's a glorious history. It's a very adventurous history," Zellner said. "It's a fight that we're happy to fight because we are surrounded by courage."