Raised in Dallas County, Alabama
Charles Bonner’s life changed one Sunday afternoon in February 1963. He and his friend, Cleophus Hobbs, were pushing their green ‘54 Ford southward down Church Street in Selma, Alabama where it had broken down. To their surprise, a chatty young man sporting a yellow button down shirt, jacket, and tie started pushing along with them. He introduced himself as Bernard Lafayette, SNCC field secretary, and started talking about voter registration. Lafayette explained he was there to organize students, to assist adults in getting registered to vote and to engage in direct action.
Bonner was ready. He had grown up in rural Dallas County, Alabama on a small cotton farm twenty miles southwest of Selma, and life didn’t make sense to him. “I couldn’t understand why we were living in a weather-beaten house, and the man from whom we picked the cotton was living in a big, white mansion,” he explained. “I couldn’t understand why the white kids had better schools buses, they had better books than we did, […] why we went to a little one-room school with a potbelly stove in the back of my church.”
Bonner was just 16-years-old when SNCC came to town, a student at Selma’s all-Black R.B. Hudson High School. Almost immediately he joined Lafayette’s efforts and along with other friends, began canvassing at the George Washington Carver Homes, a housing project in Selma. Bernard Lafayette and his wife Colia Liddell were holding voter education classes at Tabernacle Baptist Church, and after his first day of canvassing, Bonner brought five students to the class. “Bernard suggested that we … organize the students,” he remembered. Five days later, 39 students gathered at Tabernacle to discuss the voter test and canvassing techniques. “Bonner and my dear friend Cleo was telling us about SNCC,” classmate Bettie Mae Fikes recalled, “And they got all of their friends that they knew involved.”
Once Bonner and others got involved, they made the Selma Movement their own. In September 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in nearby Birmingham, killing four girls. Bonner, Hobbs, and Terry Shaw gathered their fellow students at Tabernacle and decided to demonstrate. At Carter’s drug store, Willie C. Robinson bought a candy bar at the counter and then and sat down on a red leather stool at the white-only soda fountain. The owner, Mr. Carter, bashed him over the head with an axe handle. Four students ended up in jail that day and “then the Movement was on,” Bonner explained. The students organized more demonstrations, at Carter’s, at Kress, at Thirsty Boy and at the library. 68 were arrested in the September protests.
When SCLC came to town in January 1965 to stage a nationally-geared campaign for voting rights, Charles Bonner and Selma’s other students were seasoned veterans. Students had been carrying out the day-to-day work of the Movement–canvassing, demonstrating, and registering voters–for two years. Then, surprisingly, their teachers marched to the courthouse to try and register that January. “We were quite energized and inspired with the teachers coming out because it was somebody else other than just us students. And that also meant that the adults in Selma would get involved,” Bonner explained. The students marched towards downtown to show their support [for the teachers] that day but were stopped by Sheriff Jim Clark.
Bonner stayed involved with SNCC after Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery March. After high school he enrolled in Selma University but was expelled because of his movement involvement. So, he took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco and worked at the SNCC office there while attending City College of San Francisco. Bonner lived in Tanzania for a while with his wife before entering law school in California. “It made me more aware of world events, the Movement did,” Bonner explained, “I don’t think I would have been a lawyer today if it hadn’t been for the Civil Rights Movement.”
Bettie Mae Fikes, “Singing for Freedom,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 460 – 470.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr. & Kathryn Lee Johnson, In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).
Colia Liddell Lafayette, SNCC Field Report, Dallas County, April 6, 1963, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
Interview with Charles Bonner and Bettie Mae Fikes by Bruce Hartford, 2005, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.