James A. Zellner Papers, 1944-1983


The Reverend James Abraham Zellner was born in Brunswick, Georgia, on June 5, 1912, the son of James Otis Zellner, also a minister, and Bessie Zellner. Before James was seven years old the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama. Zellner attended Bob Jones College, and in December 1935, married Ruby Hardy, an alumna of the same college, at a ceremony officiated by Bob Jones. Ruby and James were the parents of five sons, James Hubert, John Robert (Bob), Richard Douglas, David Otis, and Malcolm Carey.

Reverend Zellner served as a minister in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church from 1941 until his retirement in the 1970s. Although Zellner began his career as a self-described political conservative and religious fundamentalist, he eventually found that his reading of the Bible required a liberal world view. In the 1940s, he was part of a group of young ministers who attempted to get liberal representation on the overwhelmingly conservative Alabama-West Florida Conference council. In the late 1950s, Zellner and a small group of liberal Methodist ministers began to discuss the possibility of becoming more actively involved with the civil rights movement. During the 1950s, he was also involved with the Alabama Council on Human Relations, an organization that advocated racial integration. In the early 1960s Zellner's son Bob became involved in civil rights protests. Reverend Zellner differed somewhat from Bob in that while he believed strongly in racial equality, he was also suspicious that Communists might be using the civil rights movement for their own purposes. Zellner contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to declare his willingness to provide the agency with any information about this Communist influence in the movement that he might find.

Because of his liberal racial views and associations, Zellner was forced from several of his ministerial posts by conservatives, and as a result he eventually served nine churches in Alabama and Florida. Zellner's major civil rights affiliation was with the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF). In 1963, Zellner was nominated to the board of directors of SCEF by the Bishop Edgar A. Love, and in 1966 he served on the organization's nominating committee. He continued this affiliation with SCEF until the early 1980s. Zellner also maintained an association with an informal group of liberal Methodist ministers variously referred to in the papers as “Operation Support,” the “Briar Patch,” and the “Gadflies.” These men shared similar beliefs and several faced similar opposition from conservative parishioners and anti-communist watchdogs.

Zellner retired from the ministry in the mid-1970s and died in 1996.