Born June 4, 1904 in Heard County, Georgia, James C. Bonner attended the public schools of Carrollton and Heard County, then enrolled in Carrollton's West Georgia Agricultural & Mechanical School, graduating in 1921. For a year, Bonner attended the College of Mines at the University of Texas at El Paso. Bonner returned to Georgia and attended the University of Georgia, where he received his A.B. in Journalism in 1926 and his M.A. in Physical Education in 1936. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1943. In addition to his academic studies, Bonner also held the position of Principal-Coach at Carrollton's West Georgia A & M School from 1927 to 1933. When the school's name changed to West Georgia College, his title changed to Assistant Professor of Social Science, and he held this title from 1933 to 1941. In 1942, Bonner became Adjunct Professor of History at Randolph Macon Woman's College. In 1944, he became Chairman of the Department of History and Political Science at Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia, and he served in this capacity until his retirement in 1969.
Bonner's professional activities, scholarships and awards are varied and numerous. He was a nationally recognized authority on Georgia history and the history of agriculture in the American South. He authored and co-authored several books and edited three festschriften. He wrote more than thirty articles for professional journals, including The American Historical Review. He authored the section on Georgia in the Encyclopedia Britannica and published articles and essays in the Encyclopedia of Southern History and the Dictionary of American History.
From 1947 to 1967, Bonner served as Chairman of the University System of Georgia Committee on Graduate Work and Faculty Research. He also was a member of the Georgia Historical Commission, the Georgia Heritage Commission, and the Georgia National Register Advisory Commission from 1959 to 1972. In 1973, Bonner worked as a consultant for the Mississippi Park Commission in the reproduction of an 1850s cotton plantation at Florewood River Plantation Park until its completion in 1975. During his tenure at Georgia College, the Georgia College Foundation named him Distinguished Professor.
Bonner served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Southern History, Agricultural History, and the Georgia Historical Quarterly and was a member of the executive committee of two historical organizations. Among his numerous recognitions are the Founder's Award given by West Georgia College in 1967 and the Distinguished Service Award given by the faculty of Georgia College in 1969. The Dixie Writers Association awarded him recognition as Georgia Author-of-the-Year in non-fiction in 1972 for his book entitled Georgia's Last Frontier.
Married in 1936 to Ida Munro, they had three children, Allen, Page, and Jim Jr. Bonner died in 1984 and Ida Munro Bonner died 1988. They are buried in Milledgeville, Georgia at Memory Hill Cemetery.