Story by Joe Formichella and photos by Kate Reali
Like most, Henry Crawford and Bob Zellner had their world views and social attitudes thrust upon them early by inescapable hardcore circumstances or by inherited prejudices all around them. Unlike most, though, they each had the strength of character to question those attitudes, the grace to take a second look at the world that, at that time, in their place, seemed hell-bent on keeping them irreparably separated, and the courage to seek a different path. The time and place was Daphne, Alabama, in the 1950s, and the world around them was literally, if not militantly, divided, black from white.
Bob, at least from his innately more privileged side of the chasm, had the benefit of a father who had renounced the KKK as a younger man, a mother whose response to her husband’s conversion was to repurpose his Klan robes into Sunday school shirts for her boys, The Zellner family lived in some of the poorest communities across lower Alabama and the Florida panhandle. He witnessed his parents work to minister to those less fortunate, both black and white, and felt the official backlash for some of those efforts, all of which fostered in him an understanding of what Martin Luther King would later articulate, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It was when he was a senior at Huntingdon College in Montgomery in 1960, that he began a lifetime of activism to realize that American credo of “freedom and justice for all.” He did so, often as not, by organizing those on opposing sides of the racial divide but similarly disenfranchised and bringing them together in their common cause, a life documented in his book The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, which is becoming the major motion picture, Son of the South.
Henry’s sense of that injustice, which was all he knew on his side of the divide, was brought into stark relief as early as his time as a Boy Scout, where, contrary to the oaths memorized and recited before each troop meeting, young black boys and white boys weren’t allowed to spend time together camping in the woods. His family, among the earliest settlers of the Daphne area, had tamed those woods, had helped forge the communities now thriving along the Eastern Shore, with ancestors who built the first water tower in the area, among other foundational work. His grandfather “Peg” was the only certified blacksmith in the area and serviced any who called on him, then worked as a master riveter securing the war machines built in Mobile in defense of our country. Henry himself served in Vietnam, at the risk of his life and incurring threats to his health that still plague him. And yet he suffered the “whites only” access to restaurants and public utilities, the selective curfews, the segregated educational opportunities. He returned from military duty to ingrained, institutional discrimination in the employment offices, in the workplace, in the banks. He freely admits those experiences together created an angry young man, and that he learned to “hate white people.”
It was no surprise that when the two of them first finally met this past February and were introduced as having lived walking distance from each other in Daphne back in the ‘50s that their getting thoroughly acquainted one with the other would supersede any other discussion. They are, both of them, notorious talkers. Their natural inclination was to find common ground, shared experiences, regardless of the obvious differences in their lives: Bob, the white vagabond preacher’s kid whose activism has brought him to causes on every continent around the globe. Henry only rarely and briefly ventures away from the land where his family’s roots run as deep and strong as the oldest and stoutest of live oaks in the area, where he knows there is plenty of work yet to be done, albeit the same work as Bob’s, for justice, freedom, and peace.
It was something of an interviewer’s nightmare how easily and eagerly they lapsed into reminiscing Daphne in days past: a particular dock on the bay where each of them had cast a line or two as boys and tested those waters, the boatloads of fish they’d glimpsed being ferried back and forth, how much bigger the squirrels they hunted in those days were, suitable enough for frying.
They don’t dwell on many specifics of their actions growing up, what it has cost them, physically, financially, or otherwise. What’s more important is what’s happening in that room, what’s at the core of all their varied work: the power of people interacting together person to person, exchanging values and beliefs, understanding the needs of others are shared needs, a natural human connection stronger than any artificial political, societal, or physical barrier meant only to prevent such connections.
Henry does love him a cup of Waffle House coffee, though, and Bob’s never been known to turn down a platter of freshly shucked oysters on the half shell. And they are both, remember, unapologetic talkers. So if you see them out and about, order another round, strike up a conversation. It’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do. Ask a question, if you must, but by all means, listen.