Bonner’s commitment to inclusion

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 15, 2005

Editor’s note: This is part one of two in a series about Charles Bonner.

Charles Bonner has a “Commitment to Inclusion,” his pathway to the future, his legacy from his past as a member of the Voting Rights Student Movement, which he helped birth in the Black Belt.

This commitment is the reason for his most recent visit to Alabama’s Black Belt and his trip to a nursing home in Elba, where former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark resides. Bonner walked into Clark’s room, handed him a large photograph taken in the early ’60s at Dallas County Courthouse and asked: “Do you know who this is?”

Clark looked at the photograph, pointed to the rear view of a uniformed, helmeted man and replied, “Sure do. That’s me.”

“Do you know the young man standing in front of you?” Bonner asked.

“Who?” Clark asked.

“That’s me,” Bonner answered, reaching out for a firm and friendly handshake from his old enemy.

Bonner was born in Selma in 1946, moving at the age of 2 to Orrville where he lived with his uncle and aunt A.C. and Rosa Nell Parnell. At Athens Baptist Church he learned religion; at a one-room school, warmed by a pot-bellied stove, he began his education.

“From the first through the fourth grade I learned to know the real Black Belt.” He attributes to an early teacher, Hattie Lee Hall, his life today as a successful Civil Rights attorney in Sausalito, Calif., “because I still draw on the lessons she taught me.”

Bonner was enrolled in Knox Academy for the fifth through the sixth grade, spent two years at Keith in Orrville and entered Hudson High School where he graduated four years later.

“I often try to explain to people that there has always been an inclusion among people in the Black Belt. One of my closest friends were Charles Sims III and Kirby – we hunted together, we played together. He was my childhood friend, he is my lawyer today.”

Bonner says his uncle A.C. Parnell and Charles Sims Jr. knew each other in the timber business and they hunted together “while Charlie and I played.”

After graduation from Hudson, Bonner entered Selma University, later dropped out to move to New Jersey with his friend Cleophus Hall, planning to get a job and stay “up North.”

“But that wasn’t home,” he says, so “I returned to Selma University and in 1963 began working in the student movement. One day in 1963 Cleophus and I were pushing Mother’s green ’54 Ford along Church Street, heading south to Small Ave, when a young man walked up, joined us and introduced himself as Bernard Lafayette, head of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).”

Bonner said Lafayette was working with the Voters Right League, “training us to fill out literacy tests and to canvas neighborhoods for people willing to attempt voter registration.

“He also trained us in direct action: sit-ins at lunch counters and soda fountains, picketing to boycott stores, demonstrating to challenge the segregated system. And we were trained in non-violence, a more religious way to resolve conflict. He used Jesus and Ghandi as examples. I was shocked! The idea of allowing people to hit us and not hit back was foreign to me.”

So Bonner, Cleophus and Terry Shaw organized students at Hudson High, meeting in the basement of Tabernacle Church, “where we learned freedom songs and student participation grew larger and larger. This was from February ’63 to September 16, ’63. The major turning point for us was the church bombing in Birmingham. We decided to begin demonstrations in Selma.”

Bonner says he felt Selma University should have been in the lead of the struggle, but the president forbid demonstrations, so he was kicked out of the college. “About this time Willie C. Robinson went into a local drug store’s soda fountain, demanded service and was hit in the head, a wound requiring 11 stitches. So, the Student Movement was born. “I was jailed with white students from Selma University and California who were working with the SNCC office. They gave me money for a bus ticket to San Francisco.” He finished college and law school at New College School of Law and became a practicing attorney in the small town across the bay from San Francisco, where he also owns a Blues caf.

Bonner says the local movement at the time had “little success, but it brought the situation to the attention of the world, that we were resisting apartheid in a non-violent way and loving the people who beat us. ”

Smiling, glancing around the luxuriant greenery and blossoming plants of the Saint James Hotel Courtyard, where he was seated, he commented, “About integration in Selma: There is now and always has been genuine friendship that transcended the segregation of the races. This is one of the reasons for my vision of the future of this nice town. This is one of the reasons I come often and enjoy the Saint James Hotel and plan the realization of my vision.”

(To be continued)