Catapulting the evolution of civil rights
Robert W. Saunders needed a pause to wipe his eyes during his speech Friday afternoon in the Library’s Grace Allen Room. Saunders told the audience that during the 1950s and 1960s, “if you were a black man accused of raping a white woman, you were sentenced to die in the electric chair.”
Saunders recalled one such case during his career with the NAACP in which the black man, with the organization’s help, was set free.
The 45-minute lecture, which Saunders delivered to a crowd of approximately 50 people, was titled “Bridging the Gap: Continuing the Florida NAACP Legacy of Harry T. Moore.”
Saunders, former field secretary for the NAACP and chief of Civil Rights Division within the Office of Equal Opportunity in Atlanta, shared several stories from his career and took questions from the audience.
Saunders became field secretary of the NAACP when he replaced Harry T. Moore, who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Moore established the Brevard County NAACP in 1934 and in 1941 organized the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.
A highlight of Saunders’ career, he said, was meeting Thurgood Marshall, former legal director for the NAACP and the first black Supreme Court justice.
“I knew I was in high cotton then,” Saunders said of his first meeting with Marshall.
Saunders began a crusade for equal rights before joining the NAACP.
While at the Call and Post newspaper’s Cincinnati office, Saunders said he and his editors spotlighted discrimination against blacks at local recreational facilities.
The Call and Post staff began a print campaign to end this unfair treatment.
Saunders said he learned a lot about discrimination during this time and recalled the day that the facilities were to become accessible to everyone – white people broke glass bottles and put them in swimming pools.
Saunders also said he learned a lot about the role of law enforcement and government officials. During Saunders’ time with the organization, the NAACP developed a reputation for being relentless in its dealings with anyone in a position of power.
“We had to deal toughly with governors and others in power because sometimes they were the ones who segregated and discriminated against us.”
Saunders also said a high point of his career was when Plant City became the first city in Florida to desegregate all of its lunch counters.
Saunders said the thing he found most difficult during his time with the NAACP was raising funds.
“The biggest job in freedom is raising the money for it,” he said. “Black people in Florida never paid for their freedom. They still don’t take out memberships in the NAACP like they’re supposed to.”
Saunders has written a book entitled Bridging the Gap based on his experiences.
University president Judy Genshaft attended the lecture. After Saunders’ speech she said how much she appreciated the passion and perseverance he showed during his career.
“This is a treasured event,” she said. “We value you (Saunders) so much.”
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