The courage of the Civil Rights movement recalled in 'Son of the South'

Lucas Till as anti-racism campaigner Bob Zellner in Son of the South
Lucas Till as anti-racism campaigner Bob Zellner in Son of the South

Son of the South
Directed by Barry Alexander Brown
Starring Lucas Till, Lex Scott Davis, Lucy Hale, Jake Abel, Shamier Anderson, Julia Ormond, Brian Dennehy, Cedric the Entertainer
In cinemas

The Civil Rights Freedom Riders arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 20, 1961, sixty years ago. So it is fitting that May 20 was the cinematic release date for Son of the South, based on Bob Zellner’s autobiography, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.

Zellner, born and raised in Alabama, the son and grandson of Ku-Klux-Klan members, broke with the prevailing apartheid racism of the South and became the first white organiser with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

As shown in the opening scene of the film, it nearly cost him his life. Several student activists were lynched in the South and Zellner came close to being one of them, with a noose placed around his neck.

The film deals with just one year of the Civil Rights struggle that Zellner was involved in.

In an interview with Green Left, Zellner expanded on the movement’s history. He also spoke about his political involvements after the demise of SNCC, including his time with the Students for a Democratic Society and some of the far-left groups that emerged from it.

Through the film we encounter Rosa Parks, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, James Forman and other Civil Rights luminaries.

Zellner and John Lewis grew up in the same area of Alabama and each worked on share cropper farms. “John Lewis was one of the early, young leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” he said.

Lewis was “the epitome of non-violent direct action. He was our leader, we were very proud of him.”

“I also got to know Dr King fairly well and was able to be in gaol with Dr King in Georgia for a period of time. Dr Martin Luther King had decided to mentor me as he had mentored John Lewis.”

Another SNCC leader Zellner knew was Stokely Carmichael, who came from the northern states. Zellner was given the job of training Carmichael in how to carry himself as a Black person in the South.

He had to behave in such a manner so as to not come to the attention of the authorities, “which always put you in danger.”

“We had to have very strong security procedures, because our people could just be disappeared,” he said.

“We were not only having to dodge the state governments that were police states in the South, but we had to dodge J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO, because they were intent on destroying the Civil Rights movement.”

In the film we see the beginnings of SNCC in a single room office with a desk and phone and its entire organisational information contained in one suitcase. SNCC went on to become a massive organisation with hundreds of field organisers, a building as its organising centre, a printing press for its newspaper and a fleet of cars.

That future is not shown in the film, however, just the difficult early days as people used their bodies as statements against Jim Crow, praying in public while threatening mobs gathered for the attack.

Again and again the film demonstrates the fascist violence of Southern whites. The courage of those who stood against such racism was incredible.

Zellner says that he originally was motivated by Christianity. He says that there are “powerful influences” in the United States that shaped him, “one is capitalism and the other is Christianity.”

“But once I began to question the system of segregation and racism it led me to question the economic system. So, I became a socialist, an active socialist.”

For those who need Hollywood sweetener in their politics, there is a love interest in Son of the South, and for those with a hankering for the movement’s inside politics there is just enough. For those seeking inspiration for the ongoing struggle for freedom, this is for you.

Watch the trailer of Son of the South below.