"Sonny's Corner" will be a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in the autumn of 2006. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column. One of Sonny's earliest political mentors, former Nebraska Congressman John Cavanaugh, has written the first installment. We anxiously await many more calls to action. -W. Don Nelson
By John Cavanaugh
Sonny Foster was a Nebraska groundbreaker and a true American hero. Sonny's life was a testament to the positive impact that every individual can have on others if they are committed to the daily struggle to make human life and human society better than they found it. Sonny was an African-American, who once told me he did not know he was black until someone in first grade told him. Until then, he had thought he was like everyone else. Even after he had been told, and he recognized that he was living in a world that made judgments based on such distinctions, Sonny continued to believe he was just like everyone else. And he was. He was a man who was involved in mankind. Sonny was an individual with all of the nobility that humanity confers. He recognized that nobility in himself and in every other person.
Sonny was a child of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. When Sonny was in grade school, the daily news coverage was of riots in Birmingham, marches in Selma, sit-ins, lynching, troops in Little Rock, and forced integration of state universities in Alabama and Mississippi with governors blocking the way of lone black students escorted by U.S. troops. The murders of Medger Evers, civil right workers James Swerner and Matthew Cheney, and many more, including eventually Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrated the life and death nature of the civil rights movement and its transformative impact on American society.
Sonny came of age as the civil rights movement had reached its culmination. Robert Kennedy and Dr. King were killed in 1968 as Sonny was entering high school. But Sonny also had local heroes among the old lions of the civil right movement in the Omaha community. Charlie Washington, Sen. Ernie Chambers, Ruth Thomas, Rowena Moore, Ruth Jackson, Buddy Hogan-and the efforts to integrate Peony Park-inspired Sonny and encouraged his emerging commitment to creating the more just and equitable American society their heroic efforts had made possible.
Sonny could see that doors that had been locked for black Americans for a very long time were now being unlocked for him through the courage and sacrifice of others. But he knew that much work still needed to be done. People had to open those newly unlocked doors, walk through them, enter the room, and claim their place to declare, I belong here. And Sonny did that: He had the courage and the vision, the determination and the skill and personality for politics. Sonny was an intuitive politician who read everything, a rare combination of instinct and intellect who understood the substantive policy choices of every issue and the public tolerance or appetite for change. It was that rare combination of skills that drew other politicians to Sonny for advice, that and his honesty. Sonny did not play games with the truth. He sought it and nurtured it and treated truth as a friend and ally in every political struggle.
Sonny entered politics in Nebraska with passion and determination, and he did it for the right reasons: to open those doors, to tear down barriers, to create opportunities for the next generation. Sonny became not just a star but a superstar. Sonny brought more new people into the political process than anyone I have known, people like Fred Conley, Brenda Council and Chris Rogers. Sonny really loved to see new talent, like Chris Rogers, and he took real pleasure in the success of others, like Carol Woods Harris and Tom Warren. Sonny was a real equal-opportunity political activist involved in every major campaign of the last 30 years in Nebraska, from my election to Congress in 1976 to the triumph of being the first black American to manage a statewide campaign when he helped elect Ben Nelson governor of Nebraska in 1990. Along the way he accumulated a string of firsts: first black American president of his high school, first black American elected president of the Creighton University student body, first black American elected to the Omaha school board. Almost everything Sonny did was a first for a black American in Nebraska.
Sonny Foster made it to the top of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s mountain, where he was judged, and he judged others, as Dr. King had dreamed: by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin. He left us far too early, but we can collectively keep his memory alive by pursuing the dreams of a more just society and widespread equal opportunity.