Below is a reflection from Bob Zellner on the recent People’s Trial and Revival in Grays Harbor County, WA, hosted by Chaplains on the Harbor. Bob is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. He grew up in rural Alabama, the son and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members and ministers. While Bob was a kid, his father took the dangerous step of renouncing his Klan membership. The decision had a profound effect on Bob, who went on to be the first white field secretary for SNCC, in Mississippi. After SNCC became an all-black organization Bob joined the staff of SCEF, the Southern Conference Educational Fund. With Anne Braden, Dottie Zellner, and others, Bob founded the GROW Project (Grass Roots Organizing Work AKA Get Rid of Wallace).
Today, Bob plays an important role in North Carolina’s Forward Together Moral Movement, mentoring young leaders and drawing on decades of experience to help guide the effort. He’s also been a major force, along with Mayor Adam O’Neal of Belhaven, NC, behind The Walk from NC to DC to save rural hospitals.
I just spent time with a group of dedicated and talented grassroots organizers, as a participant in a delegation of the Poor People’s Campaign to Grays Harbor County in Washington State. The fights in Westport and Aberdeen and throughout the county will encourage others who are facing similar conditions across the country to stand up. This trip shows the potential of the Poor People’s Campaign — revealing that thousands of communities are, as Aaron Scott of Chaplains on the Harbor said, “excluded from the economy, abandoned by the state, left fending for themselves and coming together across deep divides and challenges to build a new economic, social and political reality for us all.”
The Rev. Sarah Monroe, founder of Chaplains on the Harbor, said she loved meeting each of us, thanking us for the love we gave to the community she and the chaplains are working with in rural areas of the far Northwest. The people’s trial model, Rev. Monroe said, “was amazing and it was powerful for me to have you all act as judges to a system that damages and kills so many here. Thank you most of all for reminding us we are not alone.”
I was honored to serve as a judge at the People’s Trial in Aberdeen, where there has been almost a score of deaths in the poor and homeless community just in the last few months. It gave me the opportunity to talk about similar trials we had during the original Poor People’s Campaign fifty years ago in the deep South. I could say to Rev. Sarah Monroe and the grassroots folks at the trial that they were not alone because freedom is a constant struggle. It is generational.
I spoke about Ms. Eleanor Roosevelt coming to the South to take testimony directly from SNCC young people and local people of color who were being killed because they tried to register to vote. SNCC — pronounced “Snick” — was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The People’s Trial model of indicting the system, putting police and public agencies on trial, is powerful because the actual people who are suffering can speak directly to the court.
While explaining my vote in favor of indicting those on trial, I took the opportunity to describe my prison experience from the early 1960s while organizing for SNCC in the deep South. Because we were conducting nonviolent workshops training young people to sit-in and conduct voter registration drives in the African American community, we were arrested and placed under high bonds. The chairman of SNCC, Charles McDew, and I were arrested in Baton Rouge, LA and charged with criminal anarchy. Our bond was set at $14,000 each — an impossible amount to raise in 1962.
Having listened to the local people at the trial talk about their jail experiences and violence from the Grays County police, especially the brutal treatment of minors and the mentally disturbed in jail, I remembered a particularly traumatic experience in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. As a form of torture, Chairman McDew and I were confined in tiny metal hot box cells across the hall from a padded cell for insane prisoners. Our torture, being blasted 24 hours a day by unbearable heat, was made much worse when an 11-year-old boy, completely nude, was placed in the padded cell across the way. We were forced to watch for days as the child became covered with feces, crying and screaming day and night.
McDew and I were initially charged with vagrancy as a way of holding us overnight. Most the men in the prison were arrested for vagrancy. They would be imprisoned for eleven days and released. The sheriff was paid $5 per day per prisoner and it only cost a dollar to feed them, so he made a profit of $4 a day per prisoner. This was over fifty years ago, and yet these things are still happening even in a “progressive” state like Washington.
The genius of the People’s Trial is that it makes the oppressed homeless community feel good for a change, empowering heretofore powerless people with agency. The act of testifying in public brings forth natural leadership. As Ms. Ella Baker said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” The trial format educates organizers at all levels, from volunteers to experienced trainers like me.
In asking us to write something about this mountain top experience, Shailly Gupta Barnes said, “Thank you to Shawna, Bob and Tony — all part of the National Truth Commission — for bringing your experiences and analysis to the conversations, and especially the People’s Trial.” No — Thank you, Chaplains on the Harbor, and the Poor People’s Campaign, for giving me this incredible experience.