Dividing duties and roles led members into a lifetime of effective activism.
By Paula Christine Schuler
John Sanders spoke as a panelist Feb. 17 at an event honoring Black History Month and the founders of the Black Student Union, the first recognized black student group at this college.
In a follow-up interview Feb. 23, he said they were meeting as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but when more began attending, they decided to make it official with this college with a charter application that was approved in 1972.
“If you were black, you hung out at the Methodist Student Center,” Sanders said. “It was where SNCC met.”
He said the group divided duties between themselves generously and focused on issues such as the need to learn black history and support each other when discriminated against.
He said if the group did not keep the activity and responsibilities of the group spread out among those involved, then the group could be damaged if one or two main people got hurt or graduated. He said the FBI and San Antonio Police Department regularly watched members because the federal government and some local leaders in the City of San Antonio considered them a threat.
“We took pictures of them taking pictures of us, their license tags, cars, and took them to Jane Macon, the first woman city attorney at the time,” he said.
The group would go to her office and make suggestions about how the police department was wasting money and time with needless surveillance.
“We weren’t worried because we were doing everything right,” Sanders said.
Members obtained their own FBI files through the Freedom of Information Act.
He said they would compare the size of their files and joke about how a member needed to be more active because his FBI file was not as thick as someone else’s.
Sanders transferred to St. Philip’s after a semester of picketing and protesting at this college.
He began working for Texas Workforce Commission in spring 1971 and worked there 39 years, but he always continued activism efforts.
He said he worked his activist activities around his job the right way and always on properly time off work.
He laughed when he said it would not be a good thing to be seen on television protesting downtown when he had called in sick.
Sanders has worked at both local and federal levels with several other activists and community organizations including boycotts and rallies since age 17.
In his 50s, he reconnected with Beverly Watts Davis. He said, “She was the State of Texas’ war on drugs, appointed by then Gov. George Bush.
Members of San Antonio Fighting Back, a nonprofit working to prevent drug abuse and violence, brought Davis back home to work with them.
Sanders said SAFB was recognized in Austin by the State of Texas for best practices.
Then, the group received an award as the drug war’s coalition of the year in Washington, D.C., in 1996.
After that, SAFB began receiving calls from cities across the country asking for help.
Sanders spent six years traveling for San Antonio Fighting Back helping other cities with the development of their organizations, educating them about the realities of drug use in their areas.
“I was showing cities that they had gangs, and they were not just blacks,” Sanders said.
He gave slide presentations on gangs in their cities, interpreted graffiti and taught cities to understand that the drug problem went way beyond the poor neighborhoods.
“All the populations were selfmedicating, but some could not afford the luxury of hiding their addiction,” Sanders said. “Drugs and alcohol were everywhere.”
Organizations for Eastside Development was a successful eight-group coalition that existed from 1979-1990 and changed into Frontline 2000.
Sanders was an active leader in both and participated in an effort to get the state to recognize a holiday for Martin Luther King Day.
According to the City of San Antonio, the Martin Luther King Day March in this city was founded by the late Rev. R.A. Callies in 1978 with about 50 marchers. They marched with every year, regardless of weather or lack of media coverage.
Some of the original people from the group included students from this college such as T.C. Calvert, John Sanford, Mario Marcel Salas, and many others from local SNCC and other civil rights organizations.
Eventually, many original marchers became part of Frontline 2000, a civil and human rights group that led a demand for Martin Luther King Day recognition as a Texas holiday.
In 1991, the group traveled to Austin and met with Speaker of the House Gib Lewis.
Frontline 2000 threatened an economic boycott of the Superbowl in Houston to persuade Texas legislators to pass the bill. The bill was passed that year.
The event in San Antonio has always been held as a march because they are remembering the marches of the 1960s.
Sanders said some cities have parades, but parades do not reflect what happened within the civil rights movement.
“Martin Luther King never paraded. He marched,” Sanders said.
He said there were no people on the sidelines holding balloons or cheering for floats; instead, they were throwing bricks and spitting.
“You don’t go to a march with the assurance you are going to come home,” he said. “It was a very serious undertaking, so we do a commemorative march.”
When Sanders talked about black activism in this city and across the state, he said, “It wasn’t about personality; it was about the issues.”
“You can vote about anybody and go home, but you got to keep going, meet and communicate, flood him (elected representative) with whatever you need.”
Sanders continues to add to more than 40 years as a civil rights activist, including annual trips to Washington, D.C., from 1979-1995.
Sanders said he would like to tell young citizens of color today: “Believe it or not, they do have a responsibility to take this baton, to carry it forth to the next generation and equip the next generation and know why they are carrying it.”
“The price that was paid for them to have the baton is too great to drop.”
He said people talk about the Holocaust, but not much about middle passage , the slave trade across the Atlantic, during which millions lost their lives.
He said African Americans need to understand who they are because they represent civilizations that built the pyramids and mastered math and engineering in ways beyond our understanding today.
“Cleopatra didn’t look like Elizabeth Taylor,” he said.