As a child born poor and black in segregation-era Baldwin County, State Sen. Hank Sanders said race and poverty were “heavy weights” on his shoulders, but family and education helped him persevere personally, professionally and politically.
Sanders, a Democrat who today represents Selma and the 23rd District in the Alabama Senate, will address the 30th annual Baldwin County Martin Luther King Celebration at Bay Minette’s John F. Rhodes Civic Center on Jan. 18.
The second of 13 children born to Ola Mae and Sam Sanders in rural north Baldwin County in 1942, Sanders said the convictions of his parents helped him overcome those “heavy weights” his family felt. Although his mother only stayed in school through the seventh grade and his father was educated at a first-grade level, Sanders said they encouraged him and his siblings to pursue their dreams.
“I know first hand how race and poverty can weigh people down,” Sanders said. “But my parents touched my life in a very special way. They taught us that we could do whatever we put our minds to.”
A graduate of the former Douglasville High School, an all-black school in the Douglasville community of Bay Minette, Sanders was inspired by reading about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American appointed to the high court. By studying Marshall, Sanders was inspired to embark on his own legal career following his graduation from Harvard Law School. He started his own law practice in 1971 and was elected to the state senate in 1983.
Sanders will be the keynote speaker for the celebration, following a 10 a.m. march from the Bay Minette Kids Park through the city’s downtown square to the John F. Rhodes Civic Center at 301 D’Olive St.
The celebration will begin the night before with a 6:30 p.m. memorial church service at Southside Baptist Church, 323 W. Michigan Ave. in the Aaronville community of Foley. The church’s pastor, Rev. Fred Cornish, will welcome Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson as the service’s keynote speaker.
The annual event rotates between Fairhope, Foley, Daphne and Bay Minette each year, said event organizer Willie Williams.
“This is the 30th year we’ve had the celebration,” Williams said. “It would have been the 31st year, but the Daphne City Council denied our application the first year we tried it. Sunday night we have a church-based program because so much of what Dr. King did revolved around and evolved from the church.”
This year, the program’s theme is “Destruction of the Ballot,” a theme Williams said is pertinent because of statewide efforts to close license offices as well as redistricting efforts in Baldwin County and elsewhere.
“Dr. King was all about expanding voting rights, about making it easier for everyone to vote,” Williams said. “Even though our voting access is better today, we still have very low turnout and in some places, the people in power seem to want to make it harder to vote. We need more people to get to vote and make sure their voices are heard.”
Sanders said he was involved with a handful of civil rights organizations while he was in college. Today, he is a vocal opponent of voter identification efforts and decries the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Section 5 preclearance requirements of the 1964 Voting Rights Act.
“I’m concerned because our right to vote is important and many people fought hard to gain it,” Sanders said. “Right now that right is being restricted by legislators at the state and local level.”
Williams, a recent opponent of redistricting efforts in the city of Daphne, said he keeps a copy of his father’s poll tax documents to remind him of the previous generation’s efforts to expand voting access.
“People need to vote because if they don’t, they get stuck for four years with officials who don’t represent their interests,” Williams said. “We still have a lot of older people who vote, who will get out there and vote no matter what, because they understand the value. But we need to get younger people involved. They haven’t had the same struggles to vote as our predecessors, so they don’t always understand how important voting is.”
Event planners expect 500 attendees each year, but could see more because of Sanders’ ties to Bay Minette and Baldwin County.
“Last time it was in Bay Minette we had 600 or 700 people and had to bring in additional chairs,” Williams said. “We could see the same thing this year because Sen. Sanders is a native son. He still has family who live in the area.”
Williams said in 30 years the Baldwin County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee has awarded $20,000 in scholarships to local high school students. Last year a $500 scholarship went to a Baldwin County High School student who enrolled at Mississippi State University for a meteorology degree. County and municipal offices will be closed Monday, Jan. 18, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.