Godfrey Saunders

Godfrey Saunders, superintendent of Belgrade Public Schools, sits in his office recently in Belgrade.

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To raise money for causes highlighted by Bozeman’s recent Black Lives Matter marches, a local group will hold on July 25 the Godfrey Saunders Run for Social Justice.

This first fun-run and bicycling event will be held virtually, with people running or biking on their own, to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus, but organizers hope to make it an annual summer run with in-person participation in the future, said organizer Josh Perkins.

The run is named in honor of Saunders, who is starting his third year as Belgrade school superintendent and was Bozeman High School’s principal from 1997 to 2009.

Saunders has led an inspiring life, Perkins said.

“We thought he was the best story as far as the American dream,” Perkins said. “We want to make sure his story remains part of the town’s history.”

Perkins said they had to talk Saunders into letting them name the run for him. “He was, ‘Oh no, other people are more worthy.’

“Like who?” Perkins replied incredulously.

“It’s a nice honor, but it’s humbling,” Saunders said Thursday. “So many deserving people helped me get where I am today.”

The money raised by the run will go this year to the Black Student Union at Montana State University, which plans to hold an event in honor of Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African American girl who desegregated a white school in Louisiana in 1960. Most white parents boycotted the school, and Ruby was taught alone in a classroom.

Saunders, 66, grew up in the 1960s in Florida, part of the segregated South where Jim Crow laws were still in force. He has spoken to Bozeman students about picking oranges alongside his parents, and going to segregated schools and movie theaters.

Every summer his community held a parade, and the marching band at his all-Black high school always marched last, right behind the Ku Klux Klan – which meant Black students had to march through the poop left by Klansmen’s horses. Crosses were burned when families tried to integrate churches in his town. Integrating the high schools caused riots.

Saunders did graduate and came to Montana on a basketball scholarship from the University of Montana-Western in Dillon. He overcame hurdles to complete his education and become a teacher, which started a long and successful career as an educator.

Perkins, owner of Perkins Entertainment Group, a music and fashion company, said the idea of holding a run hatched after he got a call from his friend Melissa Evje during the turmoil over police shootings. She said she wanted to do something more than donate.

Perkins also hatched the plan with two fellow African Americans and veterans of the Bobcat football team, John Taylor, who played for the Detroit Lions and is married to Saunders’ daughter Paige, and Will Johnson, who played on the Bobcats 1984 championship team.

Participants in the Run for Social Justice can sign up to walk or run 5k or 10k, or ride bikes 10k or 20k, download a racing bib, and post photos or videos of their efforts online, Perkins said. Saunders said he plans to walk rather than run.

There will be prizes for best costume, funniest picture, oldest and youngest participant, and everyone will be mailed a medal. Cost is $7 per individual or $30 for a team or family. More information is online at https://localraces.com/jegroup/the-godfrey-saunders-run-for-social-justice and https://www.thegsrun.com.

This story was updated July 17 to provide links the run registration websites.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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