Thursday, July 12, 2018

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1622 - I’ve got independence on my mind!

  Independence is powerful, and there are many dimensions to independence. I have independence on my mind, my heart, and my spirit. So I want to share several personal experiences involving independence. I've got independence on my mind.

  There is our internal independence. There is our external independence. Each will affect the other. However, they are very different. We must understand both. We must seek both.

  I felt some measure of internal independence as far back as I can remember. My mother and father were living examples of internal independence. They were strong and self-reliant in spite of poverty and White supremacy. I remember my mother sitting in our one chair with us sitting on the floor in the front room of our three-room house. She would tell us, “Children, times are always kind of bad with this big ‘po’ family.”  (We were eleven at the time – 9 children, a mother and a father, and we grew to be 15 with 13 children, a mother and a father). “But they are real bad now,” she would say. Then she would go silent for a long moment, causing us to focus even more intently on her words. Then she would say, “But don’t y’all worry. I am at my best when things get bad!” She lifted our spirits and stimulated the determination to meet whatever came. These were powerful examples of meeting challenges. These were powerful moments of forging independence.

  I didn’t recall feeling a sense of external independence until events occurred when I was eighteen. I had graduated from high school at 17 and went to work at a sawmill performing the most difficult job at the mill. I had to bend over all day on stacks of lumber, grabbing and throwing 1x4s and 2x4’ up to 2x12s to one side of the stack so another man could place them on a conveyor belt running into the planing machine. I had been working the job for a year. In the history of the mill, no one else had lasted more than six months. I was making the minimum wage of $1.00 per hour. The owner said he was proud of my work and I deserved the raise I requested. However, he could not give me a raise because others would want one. I felt oppressed.

  It was a hot summer day in June that I declared my independence. When lunchtime came, I got off the smoking hot stack of lumber that had just come out of the kiln. I quit my job on the spot and walked five miles home. That evening I was on a Greyhound bus headed for New York to live with my Aunt Cat. My brother James was already staying with her. I was 18 leaving an oppressive job and the oppressive racism of 1960 Alabama, but I was also leaving my family, friends, and everything I knew. I felt the exhilarating power of independence. Sometimes we have to declare our independence. I've got independence is on my mind.

  There are various other occasions when I felt a strong sense of independence. One was starting what grew into the law firm Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders. I opened my office in Selma on January 10, 1972. I didn’t have any resources, and I had to renovate the premises and buy equipment and hire a secretary. I found a way to do all three. The sense of independence grew as my wife, Rose Mary Sanders, now known as Faya Rose Toure, joined me. It grew again when J.L. Chestnut, Jr. joined us. We went from Hank Sanders, Attorney at Law, to Sanders and Sanders, Attorneys at Law, to Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders, Attorneys at Law. We eventually grew to be the biggest Black law firm in Alabama with 13 lawyers. We no longer hold such a status. These were examples of internal independence and external independence.

  I also felt a sense of independence the day I decided not to run for a 10th term in the Alabama Senate. I have served for 35 years. I don’t recall any sense of independence when I decided to run for the Senate or when I was elected. I am still on a wave of independence even though I have five months left to serve on this term.

  Now, let’s explore external independence. I grew up in oppressive poverty. We did not even have toothbrushes. We would put salt in a piece of brown paper bag and on our way to school, break a twig from a particular kind of tree, chew up the end so it would be soft, and use the salt to brush our teeth. It took me years after I had plenty of toothbrushes to know how to properly use one. I didn’t know that I should wet the toothbrush before I placed the toothpaste on it. I didn’t know to brush my gums. Poverty is powerful and pervasive. It affected everything I did. It affected who I was. But I escaped from poverty. I've got independence on my mind.

  Along the way, there were various external steps on the road to independence from White supremacy. The 1964 Civil Rights Act that provided legal freedom from discrimination in public places and in places of employment, whether public or private, was a big step. There were also the following: the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling; the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott; the 1963 Birmingham Accommodation demonstrations; the 1965 Bloody Sunday March and the Selma-to-Montgomery March; and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Each was a step toward external independence. Each was a response to the powerful web of White supremacy.

  I have not achieved independence from the web of White supremacy. The web of White supremacy is so deeply woven into our society’s fabric. It sets limits on me and others at every turn in spite of significant accomplishments. Some years ago, I was on a local radio program with a White lawyer in Selma. He was determined to demonstrate that my race had benefitted me rather than held me back. He said, “If you were not Black, you wouldn’t be in the Alabama Senate!” I shot back: “You are right. I would be in the United States Senate!” It is hard to explain to people who are not Black how race diminishes every good we do and enlarges any perceived bad we may do.  Every opportunity is circumscribed. Every mistake is more costly. We are forever negotiating the web of race in America. There is so much I could share with you because this issue is that pervasive, but I am out of space. I've got independence on my mind. I hope you’ve got independence on your mind.

EPILOGUE – I am thankful. I am thankful for each challenge I faced. I am thankful to be able to embrace most of my challenges. I am thankful for each measure of independence that has come my way, whether inside and outside. I am just thankful because I know I am blessed. My cup truly runneth over.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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