Even if you love history you won’t know his name right off like John Lewis or Andy Young and he’d probably prefer it that way.
You wouldn’t have recognized him at first sight but you can find him somewhere looming in a thousand pictures from the movement.
Bob Mants was a worker pure and simple and his pride rested in that.
I was in my early twenties when I first met him while working at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, AL. I’ll never forget him walking into the Museum with that infamous scowl tucked tightly underneath his even more infamous cap. Although I had met him a half of a dozen times before – that day I recognized him immediately because I had spent months and months scouring over pictures from the Voting Rights movement and his face just leapt out at me. I said, “your Bob Mants!” to which he dryly replied: “All of my life darling” and moved right past me down the hall to visit Joanne Bland the director of the museum – who herself had been apart of the movement and was a long time friend. Unmoved by his prickly response, I followed right behind him like a little kid and began to barrage him with questions. Ms. Ann (as some of us affectionately call her) just explained that he shouldn’t mind me because I was “tarded” and didn’t know any better. But instead, he shocked Ms. Ann, me and everyone else when he turned around and told me to ask him anything I wanted – and I did. From that day until this one Bob Mants has forever remained dear in my heart. Our friendship was odd to some people. He always greeted me with a huge hug and kiss and would immediately turn around and get his scowl right back in place for whomever else was around. It was because of our friendship that he finally granted the Museum the taped interview that they had been trying for years to get from him. He sat with my best friend and me for more than two hours and told us stories that we had never heard and laughed and ministered and taught and for the first time, he says, since the 60s cried about the work. He had endured so much for so long that, like many movement folk, he had just become a hard shell. Most of his interactions about his work were with tourist and college students who really didn’t look at his work through the same lens as we did – as a foundation to continue building movements. Most thought of him as mean. I understood that he was just straightforward and didn’t suffer fools because he had too much work to do. To look at him in his throwback SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) uniform – denim overalls, basic shirt and a cap – it would be easy to mistake him for some old backwoods, long talking type cat. But he was just the opposite. The uniform remained long after the movement dissipated because he was unassuming just like he was taught to be.
Bob Mants was born and raised in Atlanta, GA. He graduated from high school in East Point and attended Morehouse before he left to dedicate one hundred percent of his time to the Civil Rights Movement. At 16, he was the youngest member of the Atlanta Student Movement. He once told me that when he went to join SNCC initially they thought he was too young for fieldwork so they put him to work in the Atlanta office cleaning up and running errands. It wasn’t long before his zeal not only got him out in the field, but earned him positions as field secretary and later project coordinator for SNCC. It’s how he ended up in Lowndes County Alabama – he was assigned. From 1963 until 1969 he was in Lowndes working for SNCC and it’s how he ended up leading one of the most significant civil rights protests of modern American history – The Bloody Sunday March on March 7, 1965. The “leaders” of the march are often mistakenly identified as just John Lewis and Hosea Williams – not true. There were FOUR leaders of that march. Hosea Williams who was working with the SCLC, John Lewis who had effectively resigned from SNCC the day before the march and was therefore representing himself, Albert Turner who was the leader of the movement in Marion, AL where Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death two weeks prior had sparked the call for this march and Bob Mants who was still a field representative for SNCC. It was the four men along with others who strategized together. Over the years the story gets miss told that Bob Mants marched to watch John Lewis’ back – not true. He was just as much – if not more of an organizer than – Lewis.
In the days after Bloody Sunday leading up to and during the actual Selma to Montgomery March Bob Mants continued his work with SNCC alongside others like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), who was partnered with him in Lowndes county and H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) who he remained friends with always. It was Bob Mants who helped me to better understand how the Black Panther Party – that was birthed in Lowndes County – was so closely related to the one that many people identify with out of California. He was always very clear that for SNCC non-violence was not a way of life but a strategic tactic. He would tell stories of how the SNCC workers would ride five or six deep in trucks through Lowndes with shotguns on their laps “in case something jumped off with some white folk.” I remember one particular story he told of local residents and SNCC workers lying in the fields surrounding their homes all night with shotguns and pistols because word had spread that there were going to be some negro homes burned and folk killed. So they watched and waited. He was a trooper. He was a warrior. He cared deeply and unwaveringly for black folk. Our liberation was his lifeblood.
I could write so much more about him and the things that he taught me but I need to stop. I need to process and I need to mourn. This loss hurts deeply. Moments before I found out I spoke about how nervous I feel about losing my elders. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to have a courageous example of a freedom fighter like Bob Mants in my life and in my daughter’s life. I am forever grateful and a better person for having known the likes of Annie Cooper, Mother Marie Foster, Rev. James Orange and Bob Mants – along with all of the living breathing foot soldiers from across the movements who have deeply impacted my life. I only hope that my continued commitment to my people where ever they are in the world makes you all proud.
I will end by saying this: PLEASE learn our history and then teach our babies. You may not be a teacher, but more than likely you have influence over a child in some part of your life. This history – our history – is dying with the giants who made it. The struggle for freedom in the United States is a great entry point to work from to introduce young people to stories of movement and struggle all over the Diaspora. All of this “occupy” stuff in the news is being presented in a vacuum and with a pale face. Our children need to know – and some of you need to know – that we have a long, arduous history of struggle and movement building in America, in Africa, in the Caribbean, in South America – where ever the skin is dark the fight is real. Learning about SNCC helped me realize that I could stand up to police in my community at 14 years old. It helped me understand that I had a voice. Unleash that voice in our kids – if you won’t do the work – they will. History doesn’t exist simply as fodder for oscar-worthy movies. Our history, especially, is a roadmap. It is a call to action. It is a motivator. Get the facts and then get to work. It’s time.