Civil Rights Activist Bob Zellner Arrested In North Carolina For Protesting Voting Law

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Nowhere close to retiring as a civil rights activist, Southampton resident Bob Zellner, 74, has again been arrested for non-violent civil disobedience.

On Monday Mr. Zellner, a longtime civil rights activist, joined the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in protest of bills being considered in North Carolina that they say would restrict voting rights, particularly among low-income and minority voters. The group met outside the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh Monday afternoon before the Senate’s evening session considered the legislation. Reportedly, 17 protesters were arrested out of a group of 50.

Last week, the House passed a Republican-supported bill that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls beginning in 2016, which would “guarantee that no registered voter is denied the right to vote at an approved polling site; and to prevent the unauthorized use of a registered voter’s voting privilege through the fraudulent misuse of a registered voter’s identity.” While Republicans reportedly say the bill will prevent voter fraud, Democrats and civil rights groups argue that it will suppress turnout among those less likely to have ID.

The bill is now headed to the Republican-led Senate. Other bills, which have not yet been debated, have cropped up in the House that would restrict early voting, Sunday voting and same-day registration. Other issues have been stirring up opposition in the state—cuts to Medicaid, unemployment benefits and funding to public education, for example.

Mr. Zellner said these actions would negatively affect African-Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, low-income earners and students, and are regressive actions in an otherwise progressive state. Furthermore, members of the NAACP have reportedly said the voter ID legislation is comparable to a poll tax because it would force voters to purchase a photo ID.

“The frustration is so high here in North Carolina,” he said before the protest on Monday, adding that the state has been the most progressive of the southern states in education. “The most important thing going on in the country is in North Carolina,” he said. “That’s why I came here when I retired from Long Island University.” Mr. Zellner is a retired history professor who has homes in both North Carolina and Southampton.

Mr. Zellner said it was his intention to be arrested along with the other protesters.

“We will remain in jail as long as necessary to make the point that a small ultra right minority should not impoverish and embarrass a previously progressive state,” he said. “In the nonviolent direct action process this will always lead to civil disobedience in the tradition of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.].”

From the time he was 22, Mr. Zellner has been an active civil rights activist. He began his activism as a Freedom Rider in 1961 as the SNCC’s field secretary, traveling from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia, to test two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that outlawed the segregation of interstate travel facilities. He was jailed, just one of his 18 arrests throughout seven states.

He said his newest arrest is old hat.

“This is what we do … we focus on expanding freedom rather than restricting freedom,” he said. “I’m just a small cog in a big machine. Right now this is the most important story in civil rights.”

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