A foot soldier, activist and traveler are just some of the names that come to mind when hearing about the life of this lone ranger.
Born April 14, 1941, now 71-years-old and not even remotely recognizable from his youth, as his hair is now long and silver with a bushy beard to match; a face that reveals only his gray eyes. Decades past his working years, Charles Fenton, commonly known as “Charlie,” stands slender, draped in blue pants, a jacket and a pair of worn brown loafers that brings to mind his story of hundreds of miles walked.
A journey that began over 45 years ago and as an incentive from working for the Louisiana Education Association, in August of 1965, Fenton first stepped onto the predominantly Black campus of Grambling State University, then known has Grambling College as an undergraduate student majoring in sociology, concentrating in race relations. However, Fenton’s straight hair and pale skin amplified the differences between him and his contemporaries; he was white.
“When August came to start school, I was their first undergraduate White student, and, as far as I know, the only one for years,” said Fenton, whose voice is soft, yet proud.
Under the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, schools were threatened with cuts to federal funding if they did not integrate, a clause that had been previously banned in the 1954 landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education, that required the desegregation of schools across America.
For this was the law; however, a court action suit needed to be filed by a public school teacher on the behalf of Fenton in order to integrate Grambling College, a cause that would soon engulf his entire being and serve as his supreme purpose.
Dropping out of school at age 15, it’s amazing that Fenton spent three years at Grambling College and at one point served as the editor-in-chief of the university newspaper. He says he was greeted with open arms from all students and administration and treated with respect.
“I couldn’t have been welcomed more. I couldn’t have been made more a part of the family at Grambling from Day One and felt more at home,” said a smiling Fenton.
But, “Charlie” was far more than a white student; he had a thirst for justice. Regardless of his fight against social injustices, former university president Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones expelled Fenton in 1968 for participating in a campus demonstration, an accusation that Fenton vehemently denies.
Fenton first arrived to Louisiana through the Congress of Racial Equality Freedom Summer initiative of 1964, operating as a field worker in Jonesboro, in hopes to begin civil rights campaigns to end long-time political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the Southern region. Many of the field workers were Northern white college students who were paid to educate Blacks on the importance of voting, a right granted in 1870 through the 15th amendment.
“I was paid $22 a week to go down dirt roads and get people to register to vote, get kids to integrate schools, organize people to desegregate lunch counters and libraries,” said Fenton, who has now lifted himself up onto the edge of a chair, with his head slightly tilted down and hands clasped together.
Fenton recalls his activism from in Louisiana from Plaquemine to Jonesboro has a culture shock. A 23-year-old man, from Nyack, New York was unaware of the living conditions of African Americans in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era.
Expressing himself slowly, taking pauses, Fenton says, “I never knew anybody who had ground for floor. Whose home was heated with pot belly stoves, lived down dirt dusty roads and lived in wooded areas without running water.” His face shows his memories are recurring photos in his head.
Fenton would sleep in churches, or in the homes of generous Blacks who would house and feed him. He says that the risk and sacrifices taken by those citizens were much greater than his.
“It was never easy. I may skirt over this stuff now, because it was over 50 years ago, but believe me if you want me to bring tears to your eyes, I’ll bring tears to you, because it was never easy,” said an emotionally charged Fenton.
In Jonesboro, Fenton was given a four-bedroom house, which was known as the Freedom House and used to teach classes and hold meetings and social and political gatherings. Adding to his efforts he would walk door to door in hopes of persuading parents to allow their children to integrate local schools, an achievement that was reached by James Potts, but it came at a cost.
Fenton recalls himself being called a “nigger lover” after being arrested for holding a demonstration and advocating for Blacks to vote and integrate, Fenton, along with another White summer worker, spent three days in jail and was beaten leaving him with a fractured skull, and broken ribs.
“I suffered two concussions. I still have trouble seeing out of my right eye from the torn retina and a busted ear drum. I was in bad shape,” said a standing Fenton, who pulled up his pants reveal the red markings on his ankles, while in jail that were left from being made to stand in boiling hot water.
Fenton says his upbringing is what sparked his activism and enabled him to stand strong despite the punishment he suffered as a civil rights worker. The son of a laborer and a housewife and the sixth of 10 children, he was raised to be a liberal and caring. Holding jobs from a hospital orderly to a restaurant owner and even riding a motor scooter for 56 days on a trip to San Francisco, the apex of his helpful efforts came from his work as an entry-level worker at the Social Security office.
“I was made aware of the misery of the world and the difficulties people endure,” Fenton added. Misery is a thing of the past, but “Charlie,” now a retired janitor, said the importance of Black History is still dear in his heart. “To not know Black History, to not know the little elements are way to fall back into it. As a person who was involved in it, I just want to scream ‘think.’ You have to know the story,” said Fenton.
The father, grandfather and great grandfather of three bi-racial women, Fenton now spends his days in downtown Nashville, Tenn., reading, telling stories about his life experiences and raising his 5-year-old great granddaughter.