The secret reason why actor Pernell Roberts was a civil rights activist

This event is left out of official biographies. He could have become a Native American version of the Rev. Martin Luther King!

by Richard Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Pernell Roberts returned to live in Waycross, GA one last time during the late 1940s. What happened during that short, traumatic period of residence is either only described in vague terms to conceal the chronology or completely left out in most references, such as Wikipedia. These events occurred after flunking out of Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture and when his enlistment in the US Marine Corps was completed in 1948. His two year residence in Washington, DC as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps band had changed his world view.

There is one other strange parallel between Pernell’s youth and early manhood with my own. After graduating from Georgia Tech, I immediately traveled to Landskrona, Sweden to a job arranged for me by the Office of Naval Intelligence. Upon returning to the USA, I was immediately offered a job with a prestigious AEP firm, based in the suburbs of Washington, DC. That was no accident. My boss was a former Captain in U.S. Army Intelligence. Living first in Scandinavia and then in Metro Washington drastically changed my world view.

When we transitioned four years ago from the People of One Fire website to The Americas Revealed website, all advertising was eliminated, plus I drastically broadened the chronology and geographical scope of articles. Because of research partially funded by Pernell’s donations, I had become convinced that the anthropology profession’s orthodoxy concerning the peopling of the Americas was very, very wrong. These were not speculations, but in the Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech tradition, based on hard genetic, linguistic, artistic and architectural facts.

There was something else, though . . . rather than modern technology making the recording of events more precise, a disturbing trend toward falsification and politicization of history had appeared . . . made possible by an autocratic, fossilized, even occult, structure within academia. In several cases, I was personally involved in the events being fictionalized. There was a profound need for someone to set the record straight. For example . . .

  • From being a planning consultant to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians immediately after receiving my Masters degree in Urban Planning, I knew that white North Carolina academicians had radically changed the Cherokee’s history in 1976, from an account, which was generally accurate, to a fictional novel, which has in the years since then has wobbled continually further into Lala Land.
  • I was personally and dangerously involved in the fight to save American democracy in the years 1990-1993. Neo-Nazi guerillas were being trained in the Shenandoah Valley to capture the National Capitol Building in Washington, DC . . . after a massive bio-toxin attack had de-capitated the federal bureaucracy during a race war. Some Army and Air Force generals, plus some employees of the US Dept. of Justice, CIA and Virginia state law enforcement were heavily involved in this treason. The race war was to be initiated by burning or exploding hundreds of African-American churches and colleges around the nation.
  • Hundreds, if not thousands of honest law enforcement officers, military officers, investigative newspaper journalists, TV reporters and honest citizens around the United States were murdered during that period. I originally got involved because the body of a squeaky-clean, teenage drug informant was found next to my house and a friend, who was an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, was murdered by a sniper, using a Virginia State Police rifle. Although some murders were briefly noted at the time, their deaths were quickly forgotten and their martyrdom has been concealed in contemporary history texts. This why Vivi, my French soulmate, assumed for 27 years that I had been murdered in April 1993. We both were in shock, when watching the actual attack on the National Capitol on January 6, 2021. It is why I wrote The Shenandoah Chronicles . . . to somewhere preserve the memory of those traumatic days.

This chapter of the Shenandoah Chronicles, tells you about the murder of a federal counter-insurgency agent in the Shenandoah Valley – The Federal Agent and the Goatherd. He was one of many law enforcement officers murdered in the early 1990s.

That’s me . . . racism was rammed down our throats throughout childhood. Both Pernell and I rebelled against it.

Pernell’s childhood

Official biographies say very little about Pernell Roberts, Jr. prior to flunking out of Georgia Tech. His autobiographical scrapbook shows his baby pictures then skips to the 10th grade in high school, which shows him in photos having lots of female admirers, excelling both in athletics and in music then performing in a play at Trinity Methodist Church.

Perhaps I am prejudiced because Pernell’s father apparently tried to kill me at age six months by dropping me headfirst on a concrete floor . . . but I suspect that Pernell Roberts, Sr. was not an ideal father . . . perhaps was an alcoholic or not mentally stable. The Roberts Family lived in several rental “shotgun” type houses at the edge of Williams Heights. In theory, because of his relative poverty, Pernell, Jr. should not have been one of the most popular guys at Waycross High School, but he was.

In later letters, Pernell, Jr. talked about his many happy memories of accompanying his uncles in canoe journeys through the Okefenokee Swamp or fishing along the Satilla River and Georgia Coast. He say not a word about his father. Well . . . following that same path . . . some of my happiest memories are with Uncle Hal taking us cousins on hikes to visit ancient Creek archaeological sites.

The municipal drinking fountains between Thornton’s Restaurant and Roberts Insurance Agency

A demon named Segregation

Pernell spent the first 18 years of his life in the highly stratified and segregated social environment of Waycross, GA in the mid-20th century. All of its Black citizens, except a hand full of educators, were kept at the bottom of the economic ladder. They attended separate and starkly shabby schools and had to enter in the rear doors of doctors offices. They could not eat at all in most restaurants. That is the only world that either he or me in the next generation knew. The Boss Hoggs of South Georgia wanted that semi-slave status to remain in order to furnish cheap labor for turpentine plantations, tobacco farms and saw mills.

A Waycross area turpentine worker in the 1950s.

My first act of rebellion against autocracy occurred at age 6. I drank from the Colored fountain between the restaurant, owned by the man I thought was my father, and the Roberts Insurance agency. I was mad because my colored playmates, who lived on the other side of the narrow finger of the Okefenokee Swamp that bounded Cherokee Heights, were not allowed to start school with me at Williams Heights Elementary. In South Georgia lingo, “heights means land two feet in elevation above the swamps.

Since the Colored fountain was lower in order to force Colored folks to bow to White folks, it was easier for six year old boys to reach. I was surprised to learn that the Colored water was not chilled. Lesson Learned . . . Separate was NEVER equal as the Dixiecrat politicians claimed.

Some white folks on the sidewalk along Oak and Tebeau Streets were horrified at what they saw. Some recognized me and went into Thornton’s Restaurant to complain to my parents. A wife of a city council member threatened to have my mother fired as a teacher at Williams Height Elementary, if they saw her young son behaving like a Communist again!

The family-owned restaurant was across the street from the old Waycross Auditorium. The site of the restaurant is now a parking lot. One of my most vivid early childhood memories is seeing a then, little known, Elvis Presley come into the restaurant with a black eye and torn shirt. He was seeking a steak to put over his eye. A jealous boyfriend had jumped on stage to hit Elvis after the singer’s wiggling hips had aroused squeals of joy from the young man’s girlfriend.

Pernell’s autobiographical scrapbook vaguely referred to similar acts of rebellion in his youth. However, we both assumed that the whole world was segregated, with all Colored people living in extreme poverty, until leaving South Georgia. Pernell saw his first middle class and upper class Colored Folks in Atlanta, during his brief sojourn at Georgia Tech. However, when he was Georgia Tech, Black students were not admitted. That momentous event would occur in 1961.

Executive Order 9981 was issued on July 26, 1948, by President Harry S. Truman. This executive order abolished discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” in the United States Armed Forces. The most important change was that African-Americans could now become officers. This was about the same time that Pernell decided to return to Waycross after being discharged from the United States Marines.

Whites in the Deep South were paranoid of the possibility of African-Americans wearing uniforms and carrying weapons. This was a cultural demon passed on from the days of slavery.

Even though my mother’s homeland of Northeast Georgia was then considered the most tolerant part of the state, the fear of “Negroes in the military” continued on for some time. On the night of July 11, 1964 three African-American World War II veterans returning home following training at Ft. Benning, Georgia were noticed in Athens by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. The officers were followed to the nearby Broad River Bridge, in eyesight of the log farmhouse, where my mother grew up.

The klansmen fired into the vehicle, killing Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn. When a local jury failed to convict the suspects of murder, the federal government successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn’s murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Pernell’s call to the Methodist Ministry

Living in Washington, DC, while in the U.S. Marine Corps Band, opened Pernell’s eyes to the injustice and cultural depravity of the Southeast’s segregation laws. He came to believe that he had failed at Georgia Tech because God was calling him to be a Methodist minister. At that time, most Emory University theology students were recommended and funded by their home congregation. Pernell resolved to return to Trinity Methodist Church in Waycross and start that process.

Trinity Methodist Church

His inspiration were the founders of the Methodist Church. The Rev. George Whitefield founded one of the British Colonies’ first orphanages in Savannah. His sermons throughout the colonies sparked the New Awakening in the United States. His message that all people, regardless of wealth, were equal before God, set the stage for Americans believing that democracy was ordained by God . . . the King of England was not. English and Welsh Methodists were directly responsible for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, plus the enactment of Child Labor and Mine Safety laws by Parliament.

Upon returning to Waycross, Pernell announced his call to the ministry to the church leaders. A classmate from high school, Glenn Brinson had also felt the call after serving the military, and was paired with him. Pernell was asked to the teach the Young Adults Sunday School class. My mother was a member.

Brinson was asked to be a lay preacher to serve the needs of small rural churches without paid ministers. That would have been Pernell’s next assignment, has he passed the test of being a good Sunday School teacher. He didn’t.

The integration of the United States military was the first major blow to the Segregationist South. Federal law superseded state and local laws in communities, where military bases were located. It sparked creation of White Citizens Councils in cities, such as Waycross, plus a explosion in membership in the KKK. The Sheriff of Ware County, where Waycross was located was said to be a KKK member.

Apparently, in his Sunday School lessons and interactions with other church members, Pernell whole-heartedly endorsed the efforts by President Harry Truman to hire black federal employees and integrate the military. Mother never really said much about Pernell Roberts presentation of a loving God and a color-blind Jesus. The only thing I really remember is that he said things that might not have bothered Methodists, where she grew up in Northeast Georgia, but got the folks at Trinity really upset.

Whatever he said in Sunday School lessons, it quickly got him called in to face the anger of the church officials. All he mentioned in a letter in the scrapbook was that he could not condone the hypocrisy of racism in Southern churches and so cancelled his dreams of being a Methodist social gospel evangelist. He soon moved back to the Washington, DC area. Almost immediately, he began taking acting lessons and acting in community theaters . . . the first step to becoming a professional actor.

I never really knew Pernell Roberts, Jr. until I was mailed his scrapbook after his death. In the years since then I have pondered his change in dreams from being an architect to being an evangelist to being actor. Perhaps, the way that he coped with the stark contrast between his life experiences and how he thought the world should be . . . was to play “pretend.”

Pernell both sang this song and played the accompanying guitar. Although initially a drummer, he learned to play many instruments professionally.


  1. You are welcome . . . another example of contemporary faked history. Western North Carolina (state) seems to be prone to this. I prepared the Downtown Asheville Revitalization Plan and was the program’s director for the first four years. Asheville’s Downtown Revitalization won many national and international awards, while I was there. I also came up with the idea of Belle Chere, which for 30 years was one of the largest street festivals in the United States. Marketing consultant, Sam Easterby, came up with the name . . . which were Scottish words, derived from French, to describe spontaneous, informal community celebrations.

    There is a bronze plaque on Pack Square in Asheville (whose plazas I designed) thanking a certain woman for planning and leading the revitalization program. She had no role, whatsoever, and at the time was a part-time minimum wage employee, who was paid to water flowers in the summer. The plaque gives credit to a certain man (not Sam) for coming up with the idea of Belle Chere and its name. The plaque was approved by the Asheville City Council at the behest of the city’s gay community, who wanted the public to think that gay citizens of Asheville were responsible for its revival. I am certain that after arriving later on in Asheville, they did much to improve the quality of life, but they had nothing to do with the deeds, to which they were credited.

    Liked by 2 people

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