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Emma Sanders, History-Making African-American Woman, Dies At 91

July 8, 2020

A well-written and informative obituary is the only way to sum up the one published today for Emma Sanders.  A life well lived and a history-making memory most worthy of a read.

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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. Its slate, under the name Freedom Democrats, showed up in Atlantic City to challenge the state’s all-white official delegation, which had been empowered by the regular party organization to help choose a presidential nominee. (It was a foregone conclusion that President Lyndon B. Johnson, seeking a full term after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, would win the nomination.)

The convention was held in Atlantic City in August 1964, near the end of Freedom Summer, a voting-rights effort that had also swept up Ms. Sanders, a great-granddaughter of a slave. She was one of the people who helped organize local citizens and some of the 700 or so young people from the North who flooded Mississippi to help Black citizens surmount Jim Crow-era barriers that had kept their voter registration at 7 percent of those eligible.

In Atlantic City, Democratic leaders were embarrassed by televised hearings, held by the party’s credentials committee, on the issue of segregated delegations and the subsequent standoff between the two from Mississippi.

The party refused to seat the Freedom Democrats and unseat the official delegation, but, weighing in on the matter, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. supported a compromise that, although it left neither side happy, did move the practice of segregation at party conventions closer to the discard bin.

The compromise 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, and the Black delegates filled their vacated seats for a time, leading to a humiliating ruckus when guards tried to remove them.

Officials later banned racial segregation in the delegate selection process; in 1968, the Freedom Democrats, reconstituted as the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi, were seated as the state’s official convention delegation. But the move, coupled with federal civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, prompted a white backlash against Democratic candidates in the South.

The party’s refusal to seat the Freedom Democrats in 1964 had also split Black activists.

“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 civil rights organization 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 in Mississippi in 1966, she ran for Congress as an independent 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.”

Mrs. Sanders would live to witness great progress on civil rights, but one breakthrough that 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.

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