Foot soldier reflects on his role: past and present

Charles Bonner was at the forefront of the student Civil Rights activists in Selma, Ala. in 1963. Today Bonner works as a Civil Rights Attorney in San Francisco. Photo by Courtney Kueppers.
Charles Bonner was leader of the student civil rights activists in Selma, Ala., in 1963. Today Bonner works as a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. Photo by Courtney Kueppers.

On a cool Sunday evening in 1963 Charles Bonner was on his way home from church in Selma, Ala., when his mother’s green ’54 Ford broke down. He and his friend, Cleophas Hobbs, began pushing the vehicle home.

It was then Bonner saw a young man in a shirt and tie just beyond the red and white Coca-Cola sign of a local store. By the way he was walking, Bonner could “tell he wasn’t from Selma.”

The man was Bernard Lafayette and he was there to recruit students for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Lafayette sat with the two teens on the porch of the Bonner family’s big yellow home and told the 16-year-old boys, “we’re here to organize the students.”

It took some time but Lafayette persuaded the young Selma natives to join SNCC’s nonviolent approach to social change.

That evening on the front porch changed Bonner’s entire life: it was the onset of his life as a foot soldier for civil rights.

The next evening he assembled his classmates at the Tabernacle Baptist Church where Lafayette taught them freedom songs, nonviolent techniques and helped them prepare to engage in direct action to take to the streets with picket signs. Their task would be to stand against a segregated society.

Bonner, who now works as a San Francisco-based civil rights attorney, used those techniques he learned in the basement of Tabernacle Baptist Church when he participated in Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march, he said.

On the morning of March 7, 1965, the day that became known as Bloody Sunday, Bonner and others who had been to jail before were trying to calm everyone down by assuring them it was going to be just like they had done many times before.

However, word of horses, whips and tear gas had spread and the group had a sense it wasn’t going to be “just another day.” When the marchers reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus that day Bonner recalls seeing “a sea of blue” law enforcement officers.

“I’m thinking as I can hear my foot print get out of sync with my heartbeat, which is now racing that I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “I’m scared. I am so scared. I don’t know what is going to happen but I know we’re going to continue. We have to continue.”

Today, Bonner still hasn’t come to grips with the anger he felt against white people and God for the oppressive and violent events he and black Americans experienced, he’s just learned to “live within the confines of my own tolerance of them.”

He referenced recent police brutality events across the country to note that there is still “no justice” and called upon people — especially young people — to make change where they can.

“This movement is just the extension of a movement that started the first time they laid the first hand on the first slave,” Bonner said. “It was only passed as a baton to me at age 16 through Bernard Lafayette.”

— Courtney Kueppers

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