Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves,
and, under a just God, cannot retain it.
— Abraham Lincoln
Charles Bonner — Teen Interview (at age 17)
"My name is Charles Bonner. I'm seventeen years old. I'm a student leader for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On September 16, 1963, we had a demonstration here in Selma. We had student leaders at the high school directing kids, not to go to school, but to go directly to the church. We assembled at the church about 9 a.m. We had sit-in demonstrations that morning. Well, there was some violence that occurred. There were four arrests and we didn't want these kids to be lonely in jail. So we planned a march that afternoon. There were 77 that marched, March 16, that afternoon. They were arrested and stayed in jail for about two weeks." — From SNCC Film: "A Dream Deferred."
September 15, 1963
Church is ending around 1 pm at Morning Star Baptist Church. [Cleophus Hobbs] turns on the radio as we are driving to the [SNCC] Freedom House. "Four girls bombed ... killed in Birmingham this morning..."
What?! We yell in unison, stunned.
Cleo speeds, turns in the driveway, jumps out of the car, opens the door of the Freedom House. "Bernard [Lafayette]? Bernard?" The house is empty. I call Terry [Shaw]. We are shaking, alarmed, scared, and we know we have to do something. We have to respond. We have to demonstrate. We have to get into the streets. This is the occasion. Anger and sadness are choking us.
We call SNCC in Atlanta. "Send us somebody to help us stage a demonstration here in Selma!" We speak with a lady in the office. We ask for Julian Bond, anybody to come to Selma now! Bernard, we learn, has rushed to Birmingham, worried about [his wife] Colia, who is pregnant and has been participating in demonstrations there. Bernard is afraid she might have been water-hosed by [Birmingham Police Chief] Bull Connor.
"We know what we got to do", Terry says, looking straight at us, "we have to sit-in. We know what to do. We are ready to do this." We agree. We call up W.C. Robinson, his brother Charles, everyone we can reach. "Meet us at the Freedom House in the morning. No school!"
We decide that some will have to stay out of jail and report the status of all events to Atlanta. Since we are doing this on our own, we have to do everything right. But we are confident that we are prepared. Scared, but ready.
September 16, 1963
Willie C. Robinson leads the group into Carters Drug Store. Walking politely in through the front door, Willie C. turns to his left to the candy counter, picking up a candy bar and paying the clerk. Then he turns to his right, our group following him to the lunch counter. All white folks' eyes in the store are wide open, they are watching every move we make, heads moving with each step our group takes toward the Fountain Counter, and to the stools reserved just for white people.
Willie C. sits down on the stool with the red leather cushion. The group follows suit. "I would like a milkshake, please", he says politely and calmly. Standing down to the left at the end of the counter, a tall white man yells, "We don't serve niggers in here!" as he is moving toward our group. Willie C. is looking at him eye to eye. "Sir, why is my money good over at the candy counter, but it's not good here at the lunch counter?"
The white man is reaching under the counter and without another word he bashes Willie C. over the head, splitting his scalp in a bloody gash. Fear and the bloody reality of direct action grip us. We run and scatter, and four of our group are arrested.
"The last time we were about right along in here. I said, well I'm gonna get me a hamburger. The guy came out — the owner I guess it was — came up and asked me what the Nigger want. I say, I wanna hamburger and he said, well we don't serve niggers in here. I said, well you give me some understanding about why my money is good in your cosmetics counter and counterfeit over here. He said, I don't have to explain anything to you. By this time, that's when he struck me on the head." — Willie C. Robinson
We re-assemble at the church, gather our courage, and in the afternoon 77 of us march again. We go back to Carter's Drug Store and picket and conduct sit-ins all over town. We are all arrested and stay in jail for about two weeks.
We always leave some people outside of the marches so that they stay out of jail and can report to SNCC headquarters, as well as leaving them to organize more marches. In jail, we can hear and see the beating of a SNCC worker who has just arrived in Selma as we were demonstrating. Cleo, Terry and I have repeatedly called SNCC Headquarters and requested leaders to come to assist us with the demonstrations we had planned. This person, presumably, has been sent from headquarters. We are terrified. This is the most vicious beating we have ever seen. The word of the beating of this new SNCC leader spreads quickly throughout the jail, putting us all into the grip of fear.
Worth Long: SNCC
After a day or two in the City jail and about 10 days in Camp Selma, approximately 10 miles west of Selma, Worth Long drives up to the Freedom House on Union Street in Selma. He steps out of a small green and white Chevrolet Corvair, wearing blue jeans and a long sleeved sky-blue work shirt, with the SNCC political button, the black-and-white handshake, pinned on the left side of his chest. His face is swollen big like an inflated balloon. His eyes are squinting, still half closed from the beating he has taken.
Cleo, Terry and I eagerly greet and welcome him. We are delighted that a SNCC leader is here to help us. As we move inside the Freedom House to continue our conversation, Cleo relates that Bernard and Colia had gone to Birmingham and we decided to demonstrate without SNCC leaders, in response to the bombing and killing of the four girls in Birmingham, pointing out that we called the SNCC office in Atlanta for help but no one had come.
Worth moves his belongings, including his many books, into the Freedom House. His kind smile is friendly; he is thoughtful, engaging and attentive to what we have to say about the Selma R.B. Hudson [high school] SNCC organization. When I ask if he has read all of the books, including some really thick books, he indicates he has read some, is reading others and that he is also a poet.
He explains how and why he has come to Selma:
"Julian Bond and I left Atlanta by plane to Birmingham and we arrived there to find the 16th Street Baptist Church smoldering. We got together at the Gaston Motel with John Lewis and Dr. King. They called a moratorium on demonstrations in Birmingham. We heard during this meeting that the students in Selma were preparing a march the next day, September 16, 1963. Julian and I got up early, obtained a SNCC car, and drove to Selma. We arrived in Selma before noon. The students were already in Browns Chapel Church, and Rev. Tucker, a student at Selma University, was speaking from the podium.
I quickly assessed the situation. I did not see adult leadership. There was no accounting of who was in the march. I did not see any section leaders. I left the church through the door near the parsonage, the house provided by the church for the pastor, and went to the front of the line that was forming to march; I got in the front of the line. I gave my wallet to Julian, knowing I would be arrested. I had seen the yellow YMCA buses and school buses lining up to take the students to the Selma jail.
In jail I was immediately interviewed by state agents. They said: "This is not Little Rock. This is Alabama. This is not Little Rock!"
They were indicating that they knew where I was from; what movements I had led. Consequently, I only gave them my basic information: my "name, rank and serial number", based on their statements.
When they took me to the booking cell, a city policeman came up. He had on black motorcycle boots reaching up to his knees. He was the "turn-key", who was booking people. The turn-key called me: "you who is grinning, come here!" I looked around. I wasn't grinning. I was probably shaking my head because I knew the script. Again, he said "You, that person grinning, come here!" I went to the counter. He said: "Why were you grinning?" I did not answer. I did not have an answer. I didn't think I was grinning.
"What is your name, boy?" This tall potbellied white policeman, with a burning Camel Cigarette hanging, streaming smoke from the corner of his mouth, was looking mad, mean; his brow furrowed. I answered with the courtesy title of "Mr." like I address police by their courtesy title of "officer." I responded: "My name is Mr. Worth Long." Bam! He hit me in the jaw with a sucker punch, knocking me down. He surprised me with the sucker punch.
I got up, searched for, located and picked up my wire rimmed eye glasses, which were bent. I put my glasses back on my face; put my hands behind my back and stood right back to the position from where he had knocked me down. With clenched jaws, the turn-key again yelled, "You don't 'mister' no Nigger in here. Now what's your goddamn name, boy?" "Mr. Worth Long".
Bam! He knocked me to the floor again.
I got up, found my glasses, put them on and stood with my hands behind me as before. I could feel my face was swelling; mouth was bleeding and I couldn't see well. "What is your name?!"
"Mr. Worth Long."
He then slapped me, followed by a judo-chop on the side of my head, the back of my neck, and shoulder. I got up again. Put my glasses back on my face. I stood back in front of him. And repeated, "My name is Mr. Worth Long."
I thought I was going to lose consciousness as he continued to strike me. Then, the turn-key stopped. He looked over at a man dressed in black and white striped prisoner clothes, and said "This man, this trustee, is in here for murder. He will know how to take care of you."
Instead of taking me to the cell with the other demonstrators, they took me over to the side of the booking room in a corner, with the trustee standing beside me. I was bloody, my face swollen, eyes puffy and I could barely see; my vision was double. After about an hour, they finally took me to a cell."
On this day, September 16, 1963, the Selma Civil Rights Movement is born. Little did we know that we would never be the same; Selma, the State of Alabama, the USA and the world would never be the same — all changed positively forever. The Tip of the Arrow in the struggle for freedom was the Selma Student SNCC. The student movement led the charge.
See Selma — Breaking the Grip of Fear and Freedom Day in Selma for background & more information.
Copyright © Charles Bonner. 2015
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