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Emma Sanders, Southern Civil Rights and Political Activist, Dies at 91


July. 07, 2020

Emma Sanders, one of the few surviving members of a group whose impassioned challenge to an all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention brought an end to segregated delegations, died on June 24 in Brandon, Miss. She was 91. Her death was confirmed by her son Everett Sanders. The great-granddaughter of a slave, Mrs. Sanders, an educator who went on to pursue a business career and to be a voice in state politics, was a founding member of Mississippi’s Freedom Democratic Party, whose slate showed up to challenge the all-white official delegation empowered by the regular party organization to choose a presidential nominee. The convention came in August of 1964, near the end of Freedom Summer, an effort that also swept up Ms. Sanders, who organized local people and some of the 700 young people from the North who flooded the state to help overcome the barriers that kept Black voter registration at 7 percent of those eligible. The Sanders family were among those housed and feeding the volunteers in their homes as they went door-to-door to enlist potential voters or operated Freedom Schools for Black children. Their efforts were met with racist hostility, and three activists in Mississippi that summer were slain early in the effort.
In Atlantic City, Democratic leaders were to be embarrassed by televised hearings of the credentials committee on the segregation issue and by the subsequent standoff between the two delegations. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weighed in on the issue, and eventually supported a compromise that left neither side happy — but which did move segregation at party conventions closer to the discard bin.
Image The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with demonstrators protesting Mississippi’s segregated delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Credit... United Press International
Officials later banned racial segregation in the delegate selection process, a move that, coupled with federal civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, would prompt a white backlash against Democratic candidates in the South. But the party’s refusal to seat the Freedom Democrats also split Black activists. “Atlantic City was a watershed moment ,” John Dittmer wrote in “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi” (1994). “Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of America could eliminate them,” said Bob Moses , a founder of the Freedom Democratic Party and a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.”
For Mrs. Sanders’s part, the 1964 controversy made her more determined than ever to keep pushing for change. “We came back and worked hard to get the Democratic nominee elected, so they could not say we were disloyal to the party,” she was quoted as saying in “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority” (2008) by Mr. Moser. “But the regular Democratic Party was not ready to accept us.” After suing to place the names of Blacks on the ballot, she ran for Congress as an independent in 1966, against John Bell Williams, a segregationist. She lost, but, she said, “We ran strong, and that was a revelation. The year after, in 1967, we were able to elect Blacks in local elections.” She would live to witness great progress, but one breakthrough she had hoped for — the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi’s state flag — would not occur until four days after her death. Mrs. Sanders was a full-fledged delegate to the 1972 national convention and to at least five conventions after that. She was in Denver in 2008 when Barack Obama became first Black presidential nominee from a major party, and in Philadelphia in 2016, when Hillary Clinton became the first female nominee (although Mrs. Sanders had supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries).
Image Mrs. Sanders in 2004 with Elijah Cummings, the Maryland congressman who died last year. Credit... Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly, via Getty Images
“She never expected any acclaim,” said the Rev. Edwin King , another founder of the Freedom Party, who was the chaplain of Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s. “But she would inspire people. Not like Fannie Lou Hamer , with magnificent speeches on the stump, but in the day-to-day managing of the party without ever pronouncing that ‘this is the way we have to do it.’”
Emma Ruby Lee Dunbar was born on Sept. 24, 1928, in Claiborne County, on the Mississippi River, near Vicksburg. She was the daughter of Abram Dunbar, a vocational agriculture teacher and high school principal, and Sarah Brown Miller. She graduated from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) in Lorman, Miss., the nation’s first Black land grant college, and studied toward a master’s degree in business at Indiana University in Bloomington. She taught in Jefferson County, Miss., and in Jackson, and later served as the executive director of Hinds County community action programs. While working as an assistant to Representative Wayne Dowdy, a Mississippi Democrat, she played a role in the naming of the first federal building in the nation for a Black person, the Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Building in Jackson, which honored a local dentist, insurance executive and civic leader. She married William Sanders, and they lived in Jackson, running a restaurant together as well as a business school. In addition to their son Everett, she is survived by their sons William, Antonio and Johnathan; a daughter, Sarita Sanders Donaldson; her brother, Abram Dunbar; her sister, Carrie Parrot; 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. It was Everett who drew Mr. and Mrs. Sanders to activism in the early 1960s when, as a student, he joined a campaign demanding that Blacks be served in all-white restaurants and be allowed to worship in any church they chose. But his parents jumped in to take the lead. “Most Black parents were telling their kids, ‘You can’t do this. it’s too dangerous,’” the Rev. Edwin King recalled. “She decided as a mother that some adults needed to be involved.” Or, as Everett said of his parents, “They came along and they moved to the head of the class.”
Image Emma Sanders in 2016. Credit... David Swanson/The Philadelphia Inquirer
Mrs. Sanders’s grandson Keelan, who became the first Black executive director of the state Democratic Party in 2004, said that “she didn’t want her own children to become involved in something that she didn’t have a very strong understanding of.” In Atlantic City, although the credentials committee rejected the Freedom party’s bid to unseat the original delegates, it ended up presenting a compromise that gave the Freedom Democrats two symbolic at-large slots and required white delegates to sign a pledge that the next delegation would be integrated. At that, most of the state’s all-white delegation walked out; the Blacks filled their vacated seats, and attempts by guards to remove them caused a humiliating ruckus. Four years later, the Freedom Democrats, reconstituted as the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi, were seated as the state’s official convention delegation. Keelan Sanders told The Jackson Free Press , “She lived a long, giving and unselfish life on behalf of Mississippi and lit a fire for her children to carry the torch for her.” Everett Sanders said his mother was “proud of what she had accomplished, but concerned that there was so much that needed to be done.” Even though she had officially retired from politics, she kept campaigning among her family. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Mrs. Sanders told The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson: “They know that when they get to 18, they have to register, and I want them to vote. I check.”
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