Charles ("Chuck") Bonner and Betty Mae Fikes were young activists in the Selma Movement 1963-65. Charles went on to be a SNCC field secretary and Betty because a professional blues and jazz singer.]
First Mass Meeting (Charles)
The Teachers' March (Charles)
Sheriff Jim Clark (Charles)
Going to Jail (Bettie)
Bloody Sunday (Charles)
Bloody Sunday (Bettie)
Marching to Montgomery (Charles)
Beyond Selma (Charles)
The Movement and My Life (Charles)
Bruce: How did you become involved in the Movement?
Charles: I grew up in Selma, Alabama and also on a compound, just about 20 miles southwest of Selma, a little town called Orrville. And Orrville is a total rural community, and just southwest of Orrville is a little settlement called Crumptonia. And that's where I really grew up, on the cotton farm way down in the woods.
Since around age seven I became aware of the extreme injustice towards Black people in the South, and I thought in the entire world. I couldn't understand why all the Black people put them down and all white people put them down. 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. I couldn't understand why the white kids had better school buses, they had better books than we did. And I couldn't understand why we were segregated, why we went to a little one-room school with a potbelly stove in back of my church, the Athens Baptist Church. Whereas the white kids went to a brick building, a brick school with a beautiful lawn, a manicured lawn.
This discrepancy confused me. I couldn't understand why God would treat us this way, if indeed we are all God's children, as I had been told in my Sunday school classes in the Baptist church. I was told that the parents should not make any differentiations between children, and parents should treat all children equally, yet God was treating Black people much like they were an inferior group of people, and I couldn't understand this. Consequently I developed quite an anger with God, and with Jesus, like I didn't understand why Jesus was white.
So these kinds of burning questions always lingered with me. Then one day in February of 1963, when I was 16 years old, my good friend Cleophas Hobbs and I were walking, pushing my mother's green '54 Ford. I had custody of it, it had broken down and we were pushing it on Church Street heading southward towards Small Street, where I lived. This is in Selma, Alabama. It was a Sunday. And this young man walked up dressed in a yellow button down shirt, and a tie and a jacket, and he just started to push the car along with us. And simultaneously while we're pushing the car, he said he was Reverend Bernard LaFayette, he was from a seminary up in Tennessee. He had just moved to Selma, and he was from an organization called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC) pronounced "snick."
We pushed the car into the driveway, and then sat on the porch in my big, yellow house, which is right on the main thoroughfare and we talked with Bernard about SNCC and what SNCC was about. He explained that he was there to organize the students basically to register adults to vote, to teach them the literacy test.
And that eventually we would engage in what he referred to as "direct action," we would demonstrate, we would go into the lunch counters that were segregated, we would go to libraries, we would to go to movie theaters, and we would go to demonstrate and sit in and undoubtedly be arrested and beaten. And that he was going to teach us nonviolence, teach us how to protect ourselves through this ordeal. And so we said, "Great, that's great, we're ready to do this." We were totally primed to take some action, against what my friend Cleo and I both saw as tremendous unfairness in the world. So that's what we did.
We then started meeting at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. Bernard suggested that we go back to our high school and tell kids that he was in town. And organize the students. So my dear friend Bettie Fikes was one of the first people we told, and another friend of ours, Evelyn, and another friend Terry Shaw. And they immediately got on board with what Cleo and I were talking about, and went to the Tabernacle Baptist Church and met Bernard. And Bernard taught us various freedom songs such as "Ain't Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around," "Oh Freedom," and other songs that he had written, "Dogs, Dogs, Dogs", he and James Bevel had written. Bettie then became one of the major leaders in the songs, because she was always the star singer in our high school.
So then we just went on to keep organizing the students in Selma, and we kept practicing principles of nonviolence, and we began to canvass the neighborhood, talking to Black folks about registration and teaching them how to fill out the literacy forms. So that's essentially how I got involved in the Movement.
Bruce: Was Colia [Lidell LaFayette] with Bernard when you first met him?
Charles: Yes, she was working with him.
Bettie: My names is Bettie Mae Fikes, and I am from Selma, Alabama and I got involved in the Movement there. As a high school student at R.B. Hudson high.
I didn't have a clue what was going on around me in the adult world. I could only deal with what I was seeing from my own eyes, and I knew, I could tell there was something wrong, I just didn't know what. My mother, being a gospel singer, we traveled a lot, and traveling you get a chance to see different areas. It seemed like in each state the people lived differently, which I didn't understand. I still did not know that there was an issue between Black and white in Selma, because the white community, as far as I was concerned, were friendly to us, my godfather was a white man.
So I really felt that there was no injustice until we moved to Detroit. My mother died in Detroit. And here am I, going to School in Detroit with white kids, sitting in the classroom with white kids. And that was not normal in Selma. After her death, I came back to Selma, but I left Selma after the funeral and came to California, and went to school in California. At 116th Street School in L.A.
I'll never forget Mr. Foster, my music teacher, who just took me under his wings. But anyway I ended back up in Selma after clashes with the family, mother and father's side of the family fighting over me. And when I got back to Selma, I didn't go right into the arms of civil rights struggle, but I knew something was going on, I just didn't know what. And when my uncle and all of them would get together and talk about surrounding areas and things that were happening with the Blacks, and that kind of scared me, because they were also talking about war. So I was just looking for another war or something to break out. I believe they were talking about 1925, and the soup lines, and things like that.
Around in the early sixties, I just needed an avenue to get out of the house to keep from going to church so much. This fellow here, Mr. Bonner, and my other dear friend Cle, was telling us about SNCC. And they got all of their friends that they knew involved. I was one of the friends they got involved. When it hit, it was like something that, you went to bed, like tonight, and you woke up the next day with a new world order.
All of a sudden these people are coming to town and they're talking about voters' rights. I didn't even know that was happening, that our parents didn't have the right to vote. There were a few Black people that were registered, mostly in Selma. Lowndes County and all these [surrounding] counties were unregistered. So these are the things that brought me into the Movement.
First Mass Meeting Charles
Bruce: Were you at that first meeting at Tabernacle [Baptist Church] when Sheriff Clark surrounded it?
Charles: Yes, that was one of the very first mass meetings we had, the first mass meeting that Bernard and Colia organized, and it was primarily a tribute to Mr. Boynton, who had just passed. Sam Boynton, as you well know, was a stalwart leader in the Selma Civil Rights Movement before the Selma Civil Rights Movement was labeled a "Civil Rights Movement." Before SNCC came into Selma there was the Dallas County Voters League, a rights organization that was steered by Mr. and Mrs. Boynton and Mr. Doyle and Louise Foster and some other leaders in the Selma community. And they had been working on trying to get the right to vote in Selma, from what I understand, from back in the thirties and forties. So Bernard had come to Selma and met with them in December of '62, and explained to the local leaders that he was going to come back to organize in Selma.
SNCC had just been developed and they were dispatching field secretaries out throughout the South at this time. Ella Baker had urged these young college students to form their own organization in response to Dr. King's call for students to organize and to become a youth organization of SCLC. And apparently Ms. Ella Baker thought that the young people, rather than becoming a part of SCLC as its youth organization, should just form a whole separate organization, and they formed SNCC. They elected James Foreman as the Executive Secretary. And then James Foreman began to dispatch field secretaries, as they were referred to, such as Bernard throughout the South.
So Bernard organized his first meeting in honor of Mr. Boynton, who had passed away. And Sheriff Jim Clark surrounded the church, but the most dramatic thing that happened was a group of white men drove up in a truck, and each one was armed with an axe handle. They were actually table legs, they worked at the table factory there in Selma, and they had each come out with these round table legs. And they were going to attack us as we left the church. And they got out to attack us, and just as they were getting out of the truck, another white man drove up, and told them to get back in the truck and leave. I learned recently in Selma that that white man was one of the teachers at the white high school, the then white high school known as Parish High School.
The first meeting was very tense, it was at night, we had never had a mass meeting before. We didn't know what a mass meeting was. There was a lot of singing, a lot of praise to Mr. Boynton, a lot of discussion of the need to organize, to challenge the segregation laws, the apartheid laws, but most importantly, the need to register people to vote. And it was energizing, and it motivated everyone, particularly the students, to get involved in the Movement and to really try to get Black people registered to vote.
We weren't focusing at this time on integrating lunch counters per se, we were still meeting in the basement of Tabernacle, and we were still taking lessons in nonviolence. How to duck, how to dodge, how to lay on the ground and go limp. How to cover your head up if you were being beaten. And how not to strike back, which is the biggest lesson of all because, Cleo and I, we were quite violent as kids, we fought like every other kid did, and we all had little groups, and the concept of being nonviolent and not hitting back when somebody hit you was a very difficult and most foreign concept to us.
But Bernard, who was not that much older than we were at the time, he was 22, we were 16, he really impressed upon us the power of nonviolence by using examples of Dr. King and Gandhi and Jesus and showing us how those people had been victorious and they were a beacon in history, whereas the people who went out and engaged in violence were not. And so that is a compelling reason. And also the fact that if we had been violent, we were going to be wiped out. So that was the most compelling reason to be nonviolent.
Bruce: Did you talk at all about also the Nashville Movement and what they had done in Nashville?
Charles: Yes, exactly. He talked about Nashville, and how SNCC had evolved out of the Nashville Movement. That he and John, Congressman John Lewis, and other students such as Diane Nash and the Mayor of D.C, Marion Berry, how they all had been students, some of whom had been seminary students, but others were just students there at the university, and how they had organized their demonstrations, and then ultimately created SNCC. And that some students had gone and worked with SCLC, and others had completely dedicated themselves to SNCC.
Charles: The next really eventful thing that happened in the Movement in the early phases in Selma was September 16th, 1963. This is some six months after Bernard first came in. That was the day following the September 15th bombing of four girls and the two boys in the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson
(14), and Cynthia Wesley (14) were killed and 22 others seriously
wounded when Klan terrorists bombed the 16th St. Baptist church. That
evening Virgil Ware (13) was shot to death while riding his bicycle by
white teenagers who had just left a KKK rally (the killer was
sentenced to 6 months juvenile detention), and later that night
Johnnie Robinson (16) was shot in the back by a Birmingham cop after
allegedly "throwing a rock" at a Klan car painted with racist slogans
which was driving through a Black neighborhood.]
Colia had gone to Birmingham just prior to the bombing because the kids were being hosed down, and beaten, and Bull Connor was turning the dogs loose on the kids, and so Colia went up to Birmingham to assist the SNCC workers with that calamity that was going on up there, and Bernard stayed back. But Bernard had received a message that Colia had been hosed and he was extremely concerned because she was pregnant. So Bernard had also left Selma before September 16th and had gone up to Birmingham to assist Colia, his wife.
Meanwhile the bombing happened and it was all in the news, and Cleo and Terry and I got together, decided we should respond to this, we should take some action in response to this bombing. And we talked to students, we all got together at the Tabernacle Church, and we decided we should have a demonstration.
We called the SNCC office, the SNCC office at that time was located at 8 1/2 Raymond Street in Atlanta, and we tried to get Julian Bond, we tried to get someone to come down, some adult, to help us carry out what was going to be our first demonstration, we had never had a demonstration.
We couldn't get anybody to come down, so we did it anyway. And that's the occasion when Willie C. Robinson went in to Carter's Drug Store along with the other group of demonstrators, and Carter, the owner of the drug store, hit him with an axe handle or something like that, busted his head, and he had to have seven stitches. Four students were arrested, and then the Movement was on. We immediately organized some other demonstrations, we didn't want those students to be lonely in jail and we sent down another brigade of students, and they were arrested.
Bruce: And what you were doing was sitting-in at the lunch counters?
Charles: We were sitting-in at lunch counters. We sat-in at Carter's, we sat-in at Kress's we sat-in at Thirsty Boy. We went into libraries, and we just kept sitting in at different places. But then in October, I believe it was October 7th, I don't remember the exact date, it was early October, we had what was called "Freedom Day." And at this point, Bernard had been replaced, because he had gone up to Birmingham and another field secretary named Worth Long had been sent down to Selma. And Worth Long led those demonstrations out. Worth Long was severely beaten during that October demonstration.
Bruce: That's the one where Chico was arrested on the post office steps?
Charles: That was not on that occasion, I don't believe, it could have been that occasion. It could have been, I don't recall exactly, but I do remember when Chico was arrested on the steps of the Federal Building. Yes, the Federal Building, on Alabama Avenue. And so, from then on we just kept demonstrating, right up until the 1965 Bloody Sunday, there was just demonstrations all the time.
Bettie: At first, I just thought it [the Movement] would be a good way to just get out of the house, keep from going to church. But after things got serious, we was just being talked to at first, and we were going around passing out leaflets and that was fun, you know, for a teenager. Mass meetings started and I could sing. And I just thought that was all it was going to be like. And all of a sudden it got nasty. And when it got nasty, that's when I see the real side of what the Civil Rights Movement was going to be like.
Bruce: What do you mean, it got nasty?
Bettie: Well, when we see police brutality. I had never seen it before. I had heard about it, they had a famous [police] car call code. They didn't talk about the driver, they just called it "Police car call 44." And it was supposed to have been some bad boys. But I had never seen anything like when the civil rights struggle broke out, how the women, the older women, the children, were disrespected, especially the older women. And how people go in fear of their life That's what I mean, that it was serious. And when they were teaching us how to protect ourselves, because we had to be nonviolent. I didn't figure it would serious enough for us to be taking those types of lessons. Who would just hit you or beat me for no reason? Until I seen it happen. And once I saw that happen, I knew that this was serious.
Bruce: What did you seen happen?
Bettie: Well, the first time I saw a policeman slap an older woman. The first time I seen Carter kick Willie T. Robinson in the head.
Bettie: Drug store [owner]. Police did not arrest him. When I could see, when we were protesting, how any white person out of the crowd could just walk up and do anything they wanted, and nothing was done about it. But if we protested in any kind of way, we were immediately carried to jail. So those things I didn't understand.
It is very funny because here we are 40 years later and someone asks, "Well, what was it like then?" It's hard to describe today what it was like then. And when I'm doing presentations in schools I try to let students and adults that were not there then, feel the impact, so I always just say let me use your minds for 10 to 20 minutes and take this ride with me.
It was, what you call undescribable conditions. When you're living in a world where you think, when you come from this background of, not Christianity but religion because we had been appreciative for a long time, but hadn't been taught. We had been preached about it, but no one had really taught us about it. My grandmother did, my great-grandmother, a lady that lived to a ripe old age. So I had a hard time understanding what was happening. I mean, everybody's been preaching to me about God is love, and Jesus and I was already having a problem because he had already taken my mother at the age of ten and I was an only child. So I was thrust into the hands of family members that, lip service said they loved you but showed a different side away from you. [And I was moved] as you heard earlier from Detroit to California back to Alabama, from house to house.
The Movement became my family, the Movement people rather. Because I was already disconnected from my family after my mother's death. And when you see people like Worth Long that just took me under his wing, so he became my big brother, just literally snatched and beaten, smashed down, beaten and taken to jail for just standing in front of someone to protect them because they were from SNCC, and I was one of the ones that he was protecting there. When I saw things like that, it's hard to describe today. And then to see him five to six hours later coming to a mass meeting, where he wore these thick rimmed glasses, and he had been beaten so that you can imagine how his face looked with those type glasses.
And today it's hard to describe that type of feeling to someone that was not there. When you sit up and say about Ms. Boynton and teachers like Mr. Anderson and Ms Moore, Ms Carter, that helped us 100 percent of the way, those stories, you know, we couldn't tell the story then because a lot of them would have been at a risk of losing their jobs. So then here we are now, we're telling the stories, and when people say well, "how was it for you then," it was hell. Obviously hell.
I was a little Black girl whose mother had died when she was ten, so I really didn't feel love any more because my mother loved me to death. And when you're thrust in the hands of people that just look like they're more concerned for you than loving. So by the time the Movement people came to town, I was withdrawn. And they pulled me back to the course we call love, because they showed me love. So when I'm seeing them being brutally beaten and thrown in jail and, you know, just really to a point where there was no respect, there was no boundary, that was the main thing, there was no boundary. And then when they said God is love, that's what I figured on both white and Black. So what was about this that I didn't understand? I didn't understand it 40 years ago, and I don't understand it today.
The Teachers' March Charles
Bruce: Were you both still in school when the teachers marched in Selma?
Charles: Yes. We were still in school, and we had agreed to pack the jails if the teachers were not allowed to register or if they were arrested or otherwise beaten. And so we had Tabernacle Baptist Church packed with kids and we had the First Baptist Church, which is right down the street, [from Brown Chapel] packed with children. We had those two churches packed with kids.
And the teachers went down, and the word was back that they were being beaten, they were not allowed to register. And I led the first demonstration out of First Baptist Church on that particular day. And in fact, I was confronted by Jim Clark, as we all were, but I was in the forefront because I was the leader of the demonstration. And there was a picture taken of me standing in front of Jim Clark, singing "Ain't Gonna Let Jim Clark Turn Me Around."
Bruce: It was unusual in the Civil Rights Movement that teachers marched. As far as I know, Selma was the only place where teachers marched, at least in the well known places. There might have been some small town or somewhere they marched, I don't know. You were students, how did you feel about that?
Charles: Yes, that was significant because the Movement was initially all students. It was just us, the 16 year olds, the 17 year olds, the 18 year olds. And there were a couple of older students who had just graduated, such as Willy C. Robinson and his brother Charles Robinson. We had recruited them into the Movement. But by and large the Movement, before the teachers' demonstration, was just students. However, we had teachers supporting us from behind the scenes, Reverend Reese, Mrs. Moore, Mr. Perry Anderson, who was the music teacher, Mrs. Margaret Moore was the English teacher. They were always in the forefront of the underground adult movement.
Bruce: Even that they were active in an underground way was unusual.
Charles: That's true, but they were progressive, because they also had been a part of the Negro voters' registration movement, voters rights movement before the Civil Rights Movement took off. So Reverend Reese was very instrumental in organizing the teachers. And of course we students kept agitating the teachers to get involved.
The superintendent of the schools at that time was a man named Pickett. He had instructed the principal of our school, a man named Mr. Yelger, to absolutely prevent us from demonstrating, prevent us from being involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and to expel us if we continued to get involved. And the school came up with a demerit system, if you got six demerits or something like that you were going to be expelled.
Well, we were constantly going to jail. And finally the teachers recognized that it was unfair to allow us to go jail, get these demerits, and not graduate, when they weren't doing anything. And Reverend Reese was the main person who organized the teachers as a result of the agitation from us students. And that's why we supported them. And they knew what the plan was. SNCC had organized all the students and were going to definitely unleash the students on Selma if the teachers were mistreated, and they were, even though they weren't arrested, they were beaten up, and roughed up.
And so we then went out on our demonstration, and that particular day was when the picture was taken of me confronting Sheriff Jim Clark. So 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, because they would look to the intelligentsia, they would look to the teachers as the leaders. The teachers who were the only aspect of the Black bourgeoisie that had stepped forward and got involved in the Movement. And then other members of the Black money-owning class got involved after the teachers. So it was a significant event.
Bruce: Such a commentary on the economics of segregation that you can refer to public school teachers as the monied class, the bourgeoisie.
Charles: Yeah, and they were making probably about $5,000 dollars a year.
Bettie: No, $3,000 a year.
Charles: Right, but that was a hell of a lot more than my grandmother, who was making $12 dollars a week [$624/year], you know, to wash and clean the houses for Mr. Oliver, Mr. and Mrs. Oliver, the white people she worked for.
Sheriff Jim Clark Charles
A few months ago, in March , when I was in Selma at this most recent celebration of the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I sought out to find Jim Clark. And I did find him, in a rest home in South Alabama. He's still alive.
Bruce: I thought he died.
Charles: No, everyone thought he was dead, and everyone I asked said he was dead. But I just couldn't figure someone as ornery as him would bow before I got a chance to find him. We went and interviewed an 85 year old man who runs the Visiting Center in Selma, and he said that he heard Jim Clark was alive in South Alabama, and he knew Jim Clark's wife's name. We got that, we looked her up in the phone book, we called her, and she said, "Yes, he was in South Alabama in a nursing home." Bettie and my cameraman Dave, and another camera lady, and I went down to South Alabama. And we called up this little nursing home down there and they confirmed he was there, so unannounced we got in the car, we drove two and a half hours down to South Alabama.
It's a little town called Elba. E-L-B-A, Elba, Alabama. It's near the Florida border [Coffee County]. It's south and somewhat east but right near the Florida border.
So we go in and we interview Jim Clark. First I sent my white cameraman in to sort of warm him up, because I didn't know how receptive he was going to be to me, and after David, my cameraman, was in there for about oh, 45 minutes or so, we were out in the car waiting, I just said I can't miss this opportunity, I got to go in now.
And I went in armed with my picture of Jim Clark and me, the picture shows Jim Clark's back with his billy club, and his helmet on, and me standing with the picket sign with my mouth open, and I'm singing "I Ain't Gonna Let Jim Clark Turn Me Around." So I went to Sheriff Clark and I shook his hand and said, "Sheriff Clark, I'm Charles Bonner and I want to show you something." And I showed him this photograph and I said, "You recognize anybody in that photograph?" And he, with this feeble hands, he had just had a stroke, and he held the picture up somewhat shaking, and he said, "Yeah, that's me." And I said, "Well, you know who this kid is here with the picket sign?" He said, "No, I don't know who that is." I said, "Well, that's me, Sheriff Clark." And then I shook his hand and said, "Good to see you again."
And then I sat and interviewed him for two and a half hours on camera, and then I had him autograph that picture. He wrote 'To Charles' and signed 'Jim Clark' and we dated it March, it was March I think at this time, it was March 14th '05. But we got the photograph and I had copies made. And we had a delightful interview. He was still just as ornery as always. I asked him if he had anything to apologize to the Black people and he said, "No." And I said, "Well, why do you feel that you don't have reason to apologize?" He said, "Because I was just doing my job and upholding the law." And I said, "The law was segregation, and that was an unjust, unfair law." He said, "Yeah, but that was the law."
Bruce: Did he say how he felt about serving time in prison as a drug smuggler? That was against the law too.
Charles: Yeah, I didn't ask him about that because even though I knew about it, it was a burning issue in my mind, I was so delighted to interview him that I didn't want to confront him with something I felt was of parenthetical relevancy. So I didn't, because I wanted to just ask him about the period of time that we shared, which was the Movement time.
I did ask him what would he say to young people today, what would be the lesson that they could learn from the young people like me who were out there demonstrating against him back in '65. And he picked up the paper [reporting on the re-enactment of the] March to Montgomery, which had just occurred. And they had a big picture of the demonstrators. And he picked up the newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, and said, "Well look, we know Martin Luther King said that we should all love each other. And you see this demonstration here? This is just about hate, we got to stop the hate, we got to what Martin Luther King said." And I was quite proud of Sheriff Clark because on the one hand he was very unapologetic. But on the other hand, he did show some semblance of redemption. And I was trying to uncover, in fact I was begging for some kind of redeeming factor in this man's soul.
Bruce: What did he mean that the march was about hate? This is the 40th anniversary march. Why did he see that as a march of hate, it's anything but, from what I remember.
Charles: Of course, it was anything but hate. But that is still his state of denial. He was referring to the demonstrators who still keep carrying on the legacy that we started. And he was very much a part of it, that's hate. But it's still his denial about what has happened. So that was one quite interesting experience recently.
Going to Jail Bettie
Bruce: Bettie, you were arrested too, right? Tell us about that.
Bettie: The time that I was arrested I had been prepared for days to go to jail, we had our jeans, sweatshirts. I had went to church every day dressed to go to jail, protesting. And this particular day I was supposed to be going to paying utility bills for my aunt. And she told me don't stop by the church. Go and pay the bills. So, I had on my little stockings and little pumps and skirt to go to take care of business. But I didn't do what they told, well, I didn't do that. I stopped by the church. And the next thing I knew I was leading a group of students out going to City Hall protesting, and singing, knowing that I wasn't going to get arrested, I just figured by the time we got downtown and we were singing, protest, then I would go on and pay the bills. But to my surprise, we were still in the middle of the projects, singing, when the troopers came up and said, "You're all under arrest." I said, "You got to be kidding."
This was before Bloody Sunday. And we had been told, you know, when they say that you are under arrest to fall to your knees and let them carry you to the buses, because that's what they had, buses to put us in. My girlfriend and I was standing together, walking together, because we walked in a group of twos, and her name was Evelyn Manns, and we were on our knees, and here come this posses with their billy clubs, not billy clubs but those cattle prodders, those electric cattle prodders. And they were getting closer and closer to us, the people that wasn't getting up they would sting them with the cattle prodders.
And when they got closer to Evelyn and I, Evelyn was looking at me and [demonstration leaders] had said for us to not get up, we were supposed to make them carry us to jail, carry us to the bus rather. But then we knew the impact because I had just got stung by a cattle prodder on my leg, so I knew the feeling of that and I didn't want that any more. And the closer they got, finally when they got to Evelyn, I won't say the word that Evelyn said, but we just got up.
And I went to jail. Started off at the county [jail], then the city [jail], then Camp Selma, then Camp Camden.
Camp Selma and Camp Camden were state prison camps in Dallas
and Wilcox Counties where chain-gang prisoners were held under cruel
and oppressive conditions and forced to do road-work and other hard
labor for the state.]
They would bring us back to court to Judge Reynolds. We came up with a little thing that we were saying when they ask us, the word was that they wanted us to say that Martin Luther King was our leader. [So that they could charge Dr. King with "contributing to the delinquency of minors."] So we had came up with when they asked who was our leader, we were supposed to say, "Jesus lead me, and my mama feed me." Evidently, I was the only one saying that, because they kept sending me back. "Send that Black 'B' back."
Or when I went before [Judge Reynolds], about me not saying, "Yes sir," and "No sir," send that Black "B" back. He felt he was going to be the one to teach me a lesson in respect. So I ended up in jail for over three weeks, recruiting kids as they come in and tell them what they were supposed to do. As a matter of fact, Reverend Reese would bring me all the toothbrushes and what we used to call the face pans for us to wash our faces with. And how I was supposed to distribute them out to the students when they came in. I had been there so long I felt like a trustee there.
But when they let me go, I promised God that nobody would have a problem with me and police no more. I didn't have a problem with the police, I just had a problem with the injustice of the system. So it wasn't good. So I went to jail. God was good, I never got arrested anymore. And I was so grateful, even though there was times I was upset enough to go to jail, I really didn't care. But then after I didn't go, I was so relieved that I didn't, once you think about it, but all the bad things, Bruce, they either happened before I got there or after I left.
Bruce: So you weren't on that time when they chased the students out the country road, you know what I'm talking about?
Bettie: I was with Tom Brown then. And that was another, I guess, thing that saved me too. And that's what I meant by, my mother died early, I was a kid that was withdrawn. Tom Brown just pulled me up under his wings when he came to Selma and I became his little sister. And practically every where he went I went. So I was in Georgia, that's how I got to know and see so much. It was '63 and '64. I worked in Thomasville, Georgia, with Tom. With Tom, we just went recruiting and, he would carry me just to hear me singing everywhere.
Bruce: I remember, all you kids leading the mass meeting in freedom song. In a line singing up in front of the pulpit, and sometimes you were up in the balcony.
Bettie: Yeah. We didn't have a name, we'd get together and just sing. Just sing. We didn't have a group of people, just whoever was there would just get up.
Bruce: Do you remember Rachel West & Sheyanne Webb? [The two little girls who joined in leading the singing.] Did you ever read their book? [Selma, Lord, Selma.]
Bettie: There's other people tell me they read it, Selma, Lord, Selma. As a matter of fact, a lot of people are upset about it because they were saying, "Oh, they were just kids, they don't remember." I said, "Look, what do you call research?"
Bloody Sunday Charles
Charles: I arrived at Brown Chapel church on that Sunday morning, March 7th, 1963, along with all of my other high school classmates and comrades. And there was nervousness in the air because we had been told that we would probably be tear gassed and we were given instructions. We had been instructed to carry a moist handkerchief with us in the event we were tear gassed. And we were told that there were posses on horses.
Even though we had been demonstrating for two years now, we had the uneasiness that this was going to be a different day, uneasiness is to put it mildly, if not euphemistically, because frankly it was a fear, it was a terror that was going through us all. We were scared, because we didn't know what was going to happen.
So we then left the church, two by two, very orderly, heading south on Sylvan Street [now Martin Luther King St.] down to Water Avenue, and then we turned right and headed west to Broad Street and then turned, and headed east across the bridge. And just as we got to the crest of the bridge, you could see the sea of blue state troopers, and a sea of blue state trooper cars, dark blue cars with Black doors, with the shape of the state of Alabama on the door. And then there were these men dressed in khakis and cowboy hats and cowboy boots with whips on horses, Jim Clark's posse. This is something we hadn't seen before in the other two years that we had been demonstrating.
Nevertheless, we kept stepping two by two, one foot in front of the other one, marching resolutely into hell, because it was so clear that we were going to be beaten. I mean, these men were just so prepared, they were not going to let their readiness go to waste by not beating us, I mean, when you look back on it, it was very clear.
So as we approached, I was probably about 10 to 15 rows back from John Lewis. And I heard Captain McCloud, the leader of the Alabama state troopers, with the bullhorn say, "Stop, halt, you're not going to go any further, and you must turn around and go back to the church. You've got two minutes to turn around." And I saw John Lewis in his trenchcoat and his backpack, and at a time when backpacks were not in at all, kneel down with Hosea William, and of course we sat, like these waves you seen in the stadiums, as they knelt all the demonstrators behind fell in line and I knelt as well. And I was marching with the other students from the nearby Lutheran school.
And John was praying out loud, and [McCloud] had the troopers, first they started putting on their gas masks, and I knew then something was up, because even though we were kneeling and supposedly praying, I was kneeling with eyes wide open. I was just watching what was going on, and where I was going to run, because when I saw them put their helmets on and their gas masks on.
I heard McCloud say, "You must disperse," and he gave some orders to the troopers. And these troops holding their billy clubs horizontally just started mowing us down. I saw them with these billy clubs held horizontally, one hand on either end of the stick, mowing over the demonstrators, knocking us down like bowling pins, and then it was pandemonium.
The posse men on horses started riding through with their whips, they started cracking heads, people were yelling and screaming and running down to the water, because they started releasing the gas, the tear gas canisters, the gas was going every place. I don't know if you've ever been tear gassed, but it is the most frightening experience because you can't breathe, your eyes are burning, you can't see which way to go, you are momentarily totally disabled.
The kid who was next to me, we both had on long woolen coats, and the canister came right underneath him, and he was totally overcome where he could not run, so I was trying to help him to get down to the water, I thought we could get some water and try to get his eyes clean, because he was just crying and rubbing his eyes. And I was trying to get out of Dodge, so to speak. But I didn't want to leave him, because that was the camaraderie that we had instilled, you always help your comrade.
But when we got down by the water's edge, the troopers were coming after us, the posse members on the horses. And much like they round up cows in a pasture, they were herding us back on to Highway 80 and herding us back over the bridge. So we never had an opportunity to really get any water to wash his eyes out, so instead they literally beat us back across the bridge, beat us back down Water Avenue, this time going east down Water Avenue. And then back down Sylvan Street to the church. And the posse members rode their horses right up on the church premises.
And that's the first time I lost all of my non-violence, because I felt these guys have really crossed the line, they breached a sacred threshold. And I picked up a brick. And people around me were bleeding, and I was going to throw this brick at this cop, this posse man on the horse. And James Bevel, and I don't have a lot of good things to say about this man, but that's the one decent thing that he did, he stopped me as I was in motion to throw the brick and said, "Stop, look at this kid's head bleeding, see the blood coming down his face and his nose and his mouth? Is that what you want to do to that trooper on a horse?" And I really didn't want to do that to him, I just wanted to discharge my anger and particularly my anger at this violation of the sacred church grounds. So I put the brick down, and went into the church.
It was total pandemonium, it was like a war zone on that day, the most frightening experience I've had in my life.
Bloody Sunday Bettie
Bettie: I was there for the Bloody Sunday time. I went to the foot of the bridge, carrying messages from Brown Chapel to the head of the line. Jim wanted to know what was going on, what was taking place. I turned around and Ms. [Marie] Foster told me, she said, "Bettie, come stay up here in front with us with you leading the line." I looked at her and said, "Are you out of your mind? Not me. You got to be crazy!"
So, Bruce, I turned around to go back to the church. And as I was walking back to Brown Chapel, you could feel, you know how it feel just before a storm, there were nobody walking on the streets, and [normally] there was always somebody moving in the projects. I mean, it's such a stillness that you can't explain.
And then when I got a half of a block from the church, walking through the projects, it was something like an earthquake, a stampede. Over the hill was a sound [rumbling]. By this time I made it to the steps [of Brown Chapel]. Out of this stillness, this earthquake [sound], the ground it just shifted it felt like. And then when I looked up, turned around and looked, people were running everywhere.
The next thing I see was the posses. I mean, like they were playing polo or something. And people screaming like it was a war going on. And I'm standing on the foot of the steps, and Bruce, this old lady had fell, and Miss Bertha turned around to go back to help this old lady up, and when she bent down to help her up, she looked up and here comes this posse, with his billy club, get to ready to strike. And she looked up and seen him and she said, "Oh shit!."
I had never seen anything like that before in my life. And it gave me a renewed feeling of people there. Because then I knew what they meant about a devil's spirit. You know, we're only human. For anybody to do this to someone, and was having fun doing it. I couldn't understand that.
But we made it through it all. And if anyone told me I'd be doing this today, or singing the songs today, [if anyone had told me] I'll still be singing "We Shall Overcome" 40 years later, I wouldn't have believed it.
Bruce: What do you mean?
Bettie: Well, teaching the stories or telling the stories is one thing, but still living the struggle [again today] is something completely different. So when I look at that, and still fighting the same struggle, that is what's so profound to me, the same struggle over and over and over again.
I've just come from singing at the memorial service for a young lady not 28 years old. [Marla Ruzika, murdered by terrorists in Iraq while she was helping Iraqi victims of the war.] Done more in her lifetime of 28 years than most people do in a 90 year lifetime. And that made me sit up, that's why I had to wash my face when I came in. I was thinking about that, and we [in Selma] were 13, 14, 15, 16 [years old], making adult decisions on how we were going to, what we were going to do. Because, as you know, when adults came to Selma, Selma had already been organized by the students, not by the adults. So they gave me a new idea that I could do anything. So, after I had got in the Movement, I knew I could do anything. But we didn't have a clue we were making history, we were just trying to correct wrongs, trying to make some wrongs right.
Bruce: After Selma, did you keep on working with SNCC?
Bettie: Yeah, I worked with SNCC, that was when I was singing with the Freedom Singers.
Bruce: That was Bernice [Johnson Reagon] and Rutha [Harris]?
Bettie: No, this was the boy group. This was the boys, Matthew [Jones], Chuck [Jones], Emory [Harris], Cordell [Reagon].
Marching to Montgomery Charles
Charles: After Bloody Sunday, March 7th, we then made a second attempt [to march to Montgomery] that [following] Tuesday. We in SNCC wanted to go all the way, and we had a staff meeting at SNCC, the SNCC office was at this time in the community, and it was our judgment that since so many white people were coming down, and so many celebrities, that this will be a great opportunity to participate in civil disobedience because we were confident that the troopers would not beat up all of these dignitaries. For example, then [California] Governor Brown's son Jerry Brown, who later on became the governor and is now the mayor of Oakland, he was there. And we knew all these people were coming. There were all these TV personalities, and I think Cardinal Spellman was there.
And so we agreed to push all the way. They would say that we can't go, they beat us up the last time, let's go through the troopers' line and let's go all the way. SCLC on the other hand was insisting that absolutely not, Dr. King was working on the injunction, let's get the injunction, let's not go. So we went to the front lines again, to the troopers' line, and we turned around, even though we in SNCC were still agitating, "Let's go forward, let's push forward." But SCLC was the cooler head on that occasion and prevailed.
And so we turned back, and of course then on March 21st, we did go all the way. And that was an exciting period because I was marching and shuttling people in cars. And I had also been called to go and make a speech in Texas about the Civil Rights Movement. And they had just called me, wanted someone to come and give a talk, and I was selected to be that person. And I was to fly out on the Sunday that we would arrive into Montgomery. So I was, that night we had the big jubilee, mass meeting, with all the concert, Dick Gregory was there, and Tony Bennett, and of course Nina Simone brought the house down with "Mississippi Goddamn." It was great.
I was able to stay with a family that night, and got up early that morning and took a taxi to the airport, and had my first plane flight, to San Antonio, Texas. And then returned to Selma, and continued to demonstrate.
And we organized the Selma community. We organized Kids for Selma Community Development with Janet Baker, called the Skid Kids. I don't know if you remember Richard Stephenson, he and Janet Baker had come down from Champaign, Illinois to the University of Alabama. And Janet had come from the convent, from the convent to the university, and then from the university to Selma. And so we organized and started some organization here in Selma.
Beyond Selma Charles
Charles: I was a student at Selma University you may recall, and they kicked me out of Selma University because I had led a demonstration out of there to protest the fact that Selma University prohibited us students from participating in the Movement. But I been participating in the Movement since the 10th Grade, so there was no way I was going to accept that now Selma University, which was the largest Black institution in Selma, was going to say we couldn't participate.
As a protest of that policy, I led a demonstration of 40 students out of chapel. Chapel was a time when the Black student preachers would get up and preach. One [student] preacher would preach every week. And we had to attend, even though I was not in the seminary school, I was in the general education school, we all had to go to hear these seminary students preach. So right in the heat of this particular student preacher's sermon, 40 of us quietly walked out. Chuck Fager was organizing that with me, and we went down to Selma, downtown Selma and demonstrated, sat in at the libraries and other places, got arrested.
And in jail I met students who were from San Francisco, who had read about this Selma University student getting expelled, and my name was cited, and so they said, "Why don't you get to San Francisco and go to college? Because they kicked you out of Selma University and there are all these colleges out there." And that stayed in the back of my mind.
I went over to Mississippi in July of '65 [for SNCC], to demonstrate. We had chartered a bus and gone over to Jackson, Mississippi. I was in jail with John Lewis over there. And [Jim] Forman, we were all in jail together. So then went I back to Selma in August of '65 after doing about 25 days in jail in Jackson.
Then Janet Baker and I took a Greyhound bus to San Francisco with the help of SNCC, who sent us the money to buy a bus ticket. So we bought a Greyhound bus ticket, and took a Greyhound bus from Selma to San Francisco. And we both enrolled in City College of San Francisco. We arrived on August 30th in San Francisco, and in January we enrolled in San Francisco City College, and I just kept going to college. And kept working with the San Francisco SNCC office.
The Movement and My Life Charles
Charles: The Civil Rights Movement was extremely impactful in a positive way in my life. Before I met Bernard LaFayette, and the other SNCC civil rights workers, I was not into reading. I hadn't even heard of Nkrumah [Kwame Nkrumah, leader of Ghana anti-colonial struggle, Prime Minister and President of Ghana, and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement], I hadn't heard of socialism or imperialism. I didn't have a clue of what was going on the world.
But with these young Black college students [of SNCC], Black intellectuals coming down with books, with discussions, talking politics, talking international politics, talking about the South African apartheid movement, it opened my world. It got me interested in these things in a very expanded way. Interacting with young lawyers, who were coming down to represent us when we were getting arrested, was something that was a major event in my life.
So as a result of that, I was really motivated and stimulated to go to college. I mean, I was already in college, I was in high school when [SNCC] first came down, but I was motivated to go to college. Then, I as I mentioned, I enrolled in Selma University, and I was motivated to go forward in college and keep on pushing, so to speak because I genuinely began to thirst for the kind of knowledge that these civil rights workers had shared with me. So that's one way it had a major impact in my life.
And the other way it had a major impact in my life, it really opened me up to the injustices of the world of other peoples. I hadn't focused on anybody except Black Americans, then I became attentive to the farmworkers' struggle, I became attentive to the Palestinian struggle, because that was a big topic at that time. I became attentive to what was going on in South Africa particularly, because of course apartheid was a major issue in all of Southern Africa. So it made me more aware of world events, the Movement did. I don't think I would have been a lawyer today if it hadn't been for the Civil Rights Movement, in fact I'm sure I wouldn't have been.
I went to Sonoma State and got a degree in anthropology, I actually got my degree while I was in Tanzania, because I left school and did my last 12 units in East Africa, 12 units of independent study where I wrote about the political structure of Tanzania, which is a system that they called Ujamaa, it's a socialism that is based on the kibbutzim of Israel, where you have people living in community. Nyerere, Julius Nyerere, was the architect of that system.
I lived in an Ujamaa village, and this is where you had a group of people living, probably sometimes within a ten mile radius, and they generate some kind of cash crop. And the village that I lived in had chickens and cashews and cows, and they had a third crop, corn or something of that nature. And they would harvest their crops, sell them, and then take half of the proceed and put it back into the operation of the business, and the other half they would distribution pro rata to each of the people in the community.
And my then wife, Dr. Lorraine Bonner, and I worked [there], and it was a beautiful experience. They butchered two or three cows, and every person in that village got meat. And since we were working in the village, we were working on the cashews farm, of course we got our share of meat just like everyone else in the community. And it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
So I decided to become a lawyer, and she decided to become a doctor while we were there. We wanted to come back and get some schools we could use in service to the people. We had studied Swahili intensively for a year and a half that we were there, and had taken the government's examination, and ended up obtaining certificates of fluency in Swahili, and then we were offered jobs to teach in the secondary school and the university, because we spoke Swahili, and Swahili was a prerequisite to teaching in the secondary schools. But nonetheless, we opted to come back to the States and go to medical school, as my wife did, and go to law school.
So I came back and enrolled in Stanford in a linguistics program as a result of my experience and study of the Swahili language, which meant you had to learn a little bit of Arabic, and you had to learn a little bit of other Bantu languages because Swahili is a lingua franca for several languages, I developed a real interest in how languages evolved from an anthropological point of view. Why some languages have certain words, some languages have no word for war, for example.
So I enrolled in Stanford in a PhD program, in a linguists program, but I'd also applied for law school, to New College School of Law in San Francisco. And after I had started courses at Stanford, I got a letter that I had been accepted to New College. So I withdrew from Stanford. My wife was in the medical school there at Stanford, and I commuted to the city to law school at New College School of Law, which had just opened up like a year before, in '73, and I started in '74. So I just withdrew from this PhD program at Stanford, we still lived at Stanford for four years. My wife and I both came out of law school and medical school at the same time, and we set up a common practice in Oakland, in the Oakland Tribune building, the 17th floor, we had the entire floor.
Bruce: Up in that little tower, that skinny tower?
Charles: That skinny tower, right. We had a common secretary/receptionist, and my wife was on one side of the building with her medical practice, and I was on the other side with my law practice. And I stayed in that skinny tower from 1979 until 1989, when the earthquake happened, and condemned the tower. My wife and I divorced two years prior to that, so I then moved over to Sausalito, and moved my office over because I had already moved my residence over there. So I just continued to practice civil rights law, no surprise.
Bruce: Did you feel you made a difference?
Charles: Well, you know, we were another drop in the bucket. Another drop in the ocean, more appropriately, in trying to combat injustice. So we all collectively made a huge difference, because each of our little drops created a pond of a movement, and ultimately a waterfall of change. And so, yes, we did make a difference, but not so much individually, it was a collective effort, yeah.
Bruce: You know, every civil rights worker, people who worked for SNCC or SCLC or CORE, almost every one has given that exact same answer. It wasn't individual, it was part of a bigger process.
Do you think that the Civil Rights Movement changed race relations in the United States? Do you feel that progress is made?
Charles: You know, before the Civil Rights Movement, I had never had any real white friends, because I lived in a segregated world, an apartheid world, so my first white friends were you, Chuck Fager, Rich Stephenson. Janet Baker was my first white girlfriend/lover, and that was not an experience that was available before the Movement. It was in Selma that I started dating a white woman in defiance of the anti-black/white world. I just had to push the envelope, to the shock and total terror of my folks, they hurried up, they had been quick to rush me out of Selma as soon as I decided I was going to go to San Francisco, they were quick, packed my bags, they were so sure I was going to be lynched.
So race relations were extremely improved because Black and white truly got together, they truly built this Movement, and the SNCC symbol of a Black hand and a white hand, holding each other on that pin, was the motto, and "Black and white together" was in the songs we sang. So it definitely improved race relations.
Bruce: Do you think there's still racism in the United States? Do you believe that the promise of equality has been fulfilled now in the year 2005?
Charles: OK, two questions, do I still believe that there's still racism in the United States? As certain as an oak is a tree. Racism, however, is just one grain of sand on a huge, large beach of hate. There's nothing unique about racism other than the fact that's it hate based on races, it's not any different from hate based on a particular religion, or hated based on gender. We have, as human beings, as a human race, a fixation with hate of each other. Apparently, it grew out of fear, But it is real, and it's diminishing, and so yes. Now, the second part of your question was, ...
Bruce: Do you think that the promise of equality has been fulfilled now?
Charles: The promise of equality has not been fulfilled in America, it is much better now, of course, with the passage of Title VII in 1964 [Civil Rights Act of 1964], again Selma was a major factor as to why that law was passed. And with the various laws, case law, common law, that has evolved out of that statute, the promise of equality is being fulfilled. But, you know, I practice civil rights law under that statute every day, and it's a great privilege practicing law on a statute that I literally bled to put on the books. It's a great honor. But my practice is inundated with cases of discrimination, every day, in 2005.
I just settled a case against Marin County for a white man who has a mixed daughter who is being discriminated against, and when he went to protest her discrimination, his white boss fired him. I just got a huge verdict, a one point six million dollar verdict against the Marin County probation department for discriminating against a 15 year tenured probation officer who had excellent recommendations but they just discriminated against him. I've had pregnancy discrimination cases for white women discriminated on the basis of pregnancy, talked to badly and denied benefits of employment.
I have an Arab client who just came in on Friday of this past week, he's Iranian, two sheriff deputies beat him up, telling him he was a "fucking terrorist" and he should "go back to his fucking country." So this kind of promise of equality, from the Constitution and from the laws, is kind of like the promise of, "Thou shall not kill" with a murder statute. We still have murders every day, we know what that statute says, murder is a felony and gets the death penalty. It hasn't stopped and likewise the civil rights laws have not stopped inequality on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sexual preference, and other various protective classifications.
It is something that I'm motivated every day to work towards, I'm totally motivated to working for equality, all over the planet. And for every people on the planet. And one day, as Dr. King dreamed, I too dream that there will be true fulfillment of equality for every person on the planet, every race and every religion. But that day is not here yet.
Bruce: One of the most controversial parts of the Movement was the Black power issue. What are your thoughts on that?
Charles: Well, Black power was a very interesting kind of, almost fluke development, as a phrase. As a concept, it was very powerful and very moving. There was a demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael were at that demonstration, and Willie Ricks yelled "Power to the people, Black power," and thrust his fist up in the air.
He had actually gone and talked with James Foreman about whether or not it would be okay if he used the phrase "Black power." And James Foreman, the Executive Director of SNCC, said, "Sure, we're talking about power to the people, and certainly if you want to say Black power, that's appropriate." And so Willie Ricks said "Power to the people" and then Stokely added on, "Black power to the people". And so the phrase took off.
But then Huey Newton and Bobby Seale adopted the concept of Black power, which was based on the political party that we in SNCC had created in Lowndes County, Alabama, the county adjacent to Dallas County, where Selma is located. It was a voting rights party that was an alternative to the Democratic Party. that was the original conception of the Black Panther Party [in Alabama].
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland adopted Black power and [formed] the Black Panther Party and then militarized that power and party, started carrying guns and went to Sacramento with their shotguns and thrusting their hands [in the air] and saying "Black power" because we are the Black Panthers. Then Black power took on a whole different meaning. It was then associated with a militaristic, violent notion, and it was [not originally] conceived of in that sense. [Black power] helped to unify many African-Americans who hadn't thought about the collective power, either political or economic, that they wield by virtue of being organized. So it was a very positive concept in that it did help to organize Black folks, and helped them to come to a kind of awareness of the power of organization.
Copyright © 2005
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Charles Bonner and Betty Mae Fikes.
Last Modified: December 12, 2005.