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Harnessing Personal Power And Activism Meet Bonnie Totten- Adkins

 Left to right: Deborah, Bonnie, Howard, Daveyne, and Carrie Todden were together as a family in their support of Bonnie’s participation in the Civic Rights March
photo by Photo Provided
Left to right: Deborah, Bonnie, Howard, Daveyne, and Carrie Todden were together as a family in their support of Bonnie’s participation in the Civic Rights March
Bonnie learned how to reach out to people from her parents Revered Donald & Thelma Lewis.
photo by Photo Provided
Bonnie learned how to reach out to people from her parents Revered Donald & Thelma Lewis.

Wednesday December 31, 1969

By Cookie Steponaitis

At first glance, Bonnie Totten- Adkins appears to be the quintessential happy grandmother and great- grandmother and when shaking her hand you get a warm welcome into her home and a feeling your life is about to shift. And shift it does, because anyone who spends time with Bonnie is energized, empowered and a bit in awe of the activism and life lessons of one small, compact and dynamic woman. Whether listening to her recounting of her participation in the March on Selma with Reverend Martin L. King, Jr. or her bringing together 340 people for a church exchange and visit, it is obvious that Bonnie lives by the ethos that in order to change America or the world one must be actively involved.
    Bonnie was born between brothers Marvin and Robert in Indiana in 1927 and has called many states her home. Bonnie’s father was a clergyman and her mother a gifted supporter and organizer in her own right. The family moved to Salisbury, Vermont for two years of her life and then to four locations in New York State while Bonnie came of age. After graduating college in Albany, Bonnie taught Mathematics and Science to middle school students for two years before her 1949 marriage to husband Howard Totten took the pair to Norfolk, Virginia and into family life with children Deborah, Daveyne, and Carrie who joined the couple in 1953, 54, and 57 respectively.
   Bonnie was aware from a very young age of the presence of racism and a double standard that existed in America splitting the country racially, but could not find it in herself to define a person based on their color, race or religion. Bonnie watched and learned from her parents and witnessed the power of a church to bring people together. She had seen her father and mother cross lines of politics, race and faith to reach out to people as individuals. When she was a child, Bonnie’s family was also friends with an African-American minister who stayed in their home as he visited their church and used his voice to spread the word of God through song. Bonnie moved into larger urban areas and populations and often found herself on the ,” perceived wrong end of things,” simply by her not seeing color and one day while riding a ferry she became aware of people starting at her intensely and it dawned on her she was the only white person on the “ colored” side of the ferry.
   After two years in Virginia when her husband was called back in the Naval Reserves they lived three years in Troy, New York, while Howard worked on his Masters in Electrical Engineering at RPI. On completion, Howard chose General Electric in Syracuse for a work environment. Soon after Bonnie and Howard took a course sponsored by Syracuse University at their local library on “Prejudice” and how it shapes perceptions and actions. Soon after that Bonne found herself in the center of America’s struggles and changes.
   Bonnie and Howard together helped organize the churches of their village forming the Fayette Interfaith Group on Racial Affairs. The group was determined to dispel myths, open dialogue and encourage community though churches. In her local church she and Howard began an exchange program with an African American church in downtown Syracuse. Through an intensely active phone campaign by both churches, 25 Fayette families, all white, all 25 Syracuse families, all black, agreed to a family exchange. Each would go to the other families house in Fayetteville, have dinner and see a play put on at the church. Bonnie not only stirred up emotions in the town of Fayetteville, New York, but placed people in positions where face to face dialogue could wash away mistaken perceptions about jobs, education, faith and race. “I tried to tell people they would enjoy the experience,” explained Bonnie, “and that was about breaking down barriers.” The results were amazing!
   At the time Bonnie and Howard were actively pushing for equity through their church affiliations, America was embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement that was forcing open the veil of silence surrounding the double standard and putting national attention on the fight for African-American voting rights. Saul Alinsky was actively organizing cities across the nation and bringing his considerable organizational skills and passion to the plight of poor communities around North America. Alinsky was often labeled a radical and did not attempt to organize the Syracuse area, but his visit prompted Bonnie and many churches to work together in their efforts by setting up the Syracuse Community Development Association (SCDA) and organized Syracuse low income people, black and white together to speak for themselves. Whites and blacks came together, went door to door, identified leaders in the community and set out to break down barriers. The churches opened doors, shared resources and opened up dialogue. They brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Syracuse to deliver his message to people of all denominations and faiths. The efforts of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement converged on Selma, Alabama bring to fruition the ideas and momentum of the movement.
   Horrified by the attack on the churches, bombing and inspired by the letter written by Dr. King from the Birmingham Jail, Bonnie felt compelled to answer the call for Americans to come from all over the nation to Selma. Herself a devout activist, Bonnie approached her husband Howard about her going and even called her parents about her desire to be a part of the protest. “I was still wavering about my decision, “stated Bonnie, “I called up my parents and even talked to my grandfather. It was my father’s counsel that helped me make my decision. He told me to make my decision on my best judgment now and not on what the future might be. I decided to go.”
   A thirty-eight year old mother of three, Bonnie boarded the plane with over a hundred of her fellow activists from the churches of the area and traveled with friend and African-American pastor Rev. Emory Proctor. “I’m sticking with you all the way,” her friend remarked and the pair were a part of the 25,000 that would converge on Selma, Alabama that day in March 1965. Planning a march of 34 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King and a group of 600 attempted the march on Sunday, March 7th, but were turned back by Alabama state troopers with tear gas on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Captured on television, the brutal confrontation led to the call for people of all faiths that led Bonnie and so many others to march.
   Dr. King and his supporters tried again on March 9th but were blocked by state troopers and a young minister James Reed was beaten to death. While Alabama state officials tried to stop the march, a US district court allowed them to proceed. Backed by support from Washington, President Johnson sent troops. Dr. King and some 2,000 set out on March 21st for Selma and along the way were joined by 25,000 other Americans including Bonnie Totten-Adkins as the sea of people approached Montgomery. Before we left for the airport we learned that one woman, Viola Liuzo, who was a mother of four children from Detroit, had been killed when she was driving marchers back to Selma,” shared Bonnie.
“   We were very anxious and nervous and knew it was not a safe environment,” said Bonnie. “As we marched, it was with people from all walks of life, all variety of people and white and black. I walked for part next to the wife of the governor of Massachusetts, her name was Mrs. Peabody, I believe. We felt so strongly about the voting rights and that it had to change.” While the sea of people were moving along, Bonnie and fellow marchers endured their greatest times of trepidation as they passed through the white sections of the city. “People sat in their cars and were gunning the engines,” recollected Bonnie. “We all worried about what would cause them to break loose and ram their cars into the crowds. The anger was palpable and the hatred could be felt.”
   Being a part of the March in Alabama solidified for Bonnie Totten-Adkins lessons she learned early in life and continue to live and lead by. Churches were the source of her faith, the organizations of how she brought people into activism and a key to being a part of American society.” Our whole sense of being, carrying love, sharing examples and seeing possibilities for change begin with the churches,” shared Bonnie. From those beginnings, she continues to this day to lead, travel, and help people learn through action that the greatest tools to changing ideas, breaking cycles of racism and poverty are through linking people to action. Bonnie and her current husband, the Rev. Lee Adkins, are both involved with missionary work around the world and still are active in world missions, but that is another chapter of a story for later. For now, as the anniversary of the famed March on Selma, Alabama comes up in March, what is important is that Bonnie Totten- Adkins generation and Bonnie herself are still marching.
   “We were there to raise awareness,” she concluded. “There were tanks, soldiers, and the entire process was organized effectively and planned by the churches. My friend the minister who accompanied me went to get us some water and could only get one bottle. Handing it to me he told me to drink as much as I wanted because if I drank form the bottle after he did I might get shot. Coming home from Selma, I was able to speak to more people and in more places because of being a part of it, I was able to connect more people with the concepts of destroying myths, one person at a time.”


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