William “Bill” Saunders is a quiet man. A war hero and legend of the civil rights movement, he has done and heard enough shouting in his lifetime. Today his voice is soft and melancholy, reflecting both the victories and painful disappointments over the course of 60 years of anger and activism.
I had a chance to meet Saunders last week as he talked with an informal group of local historians and preservationists. It was a meeting that had eluded me over the years, and when it finally came, I was delighted but also a little surprised. Maybe I was expecting the angry young man I had read about, the man who was an organizer and negotiator in the 1969 hospital workers strike, the man whose local radio station — the Informant, it was called — galvanized and gave voice to local activists.
Those battles are long behind him. Today he is working with other residents of James Island and Johns Island — black and white — to stop I-526 from turning their rural communities into urban sprawl. At the end of a recent Charleston County Council meeting when he argued his case, he approached a white council member and highway proponent who refused to shake his hand. Some things never seem to change.
Raised on Johns Island when it was isolated by water and distance from the rest of the world, he had little contact with whites in his youth. He recalls an idyllic childhood, when his community had no electricity and everyone fed themselves from their own fields and streams. “We were almost like Adam and Eve. We thought as long as you don’t have nothing to do with white men, you all right,” he told me. “I didn’t encounter anything real bad until I went into the military.”
Saunders lied about his age to join the Army when he was 15. Though recently integrated by executive order, the Army represented the first wall of institutional racism Saunders encountered in his young life. He also encountered the North Koreans, stepping on a booby trap in the snow in 1951. Although he was injured, the Army denied him a Purple Heart until it was finally awarded to him in a special ceremony at The Citadel — in 2002.
Saunders made his only bid for public office in 1980, running for state senate against a local boy named Glenn McConnell. First Lady Rosalyn Carter and baseball icon Hank Aaron came to Charleston to endorse Saunders. But the visitor McConnell was most interested in was Stokeley Carmichael. The Black Panther had come to Johns Island to meet Saunders in 1967, and McConnell wouldn’t let voters forget it. He branded Saunders a communist, and it stuck. Had Saunders been elected, he would have been the first black in the S.C. Senate since Reconstruction. McConnell rode the 1980 Reagan wave to his first election. He is now Senate president pro tempore and widely regarded as the most powerful man in state government.
Saunders’ soft and reflective voice will not be soon forgotten. Two hours of it were recorded recently as part of a new collection of voices from the civil rights movement, which will be in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Saunders is among 100 civil rights veterans nationwide whose testimonies have been taken for the collection, said Kerry Taylor of The Citadel Oral History Program, who recorded Saunders’ memories with a Smithsonian film crew.
Over the years, Taylor has interviewed hundreds of people who were involved in the civil rights movement. “I can’t remember talking to one who has retreated from the movement’s commitments to justice and equality. They generally grow stronger in their resolve.”
But Taylor observed that many activists express disappointment with what they view as the movement’s limited successes. “All of them are rightly proud of their work, but no one would claim that Dr. King’s ‘Dream’ has been fulfilled,” he said. “This is the contradiction they grapple with: How did their movement so radically alter American politics and culture, even as inequality persists and grows. Bill Saunders, too, tends to emphasize his failures and disappointments. Saunders and the other movement veterans remind us that real heroism and real leadership is not facile. It’s not kid’s stuff.”
Saunders’ legacy is rich and complex. As much as any person living today, he is responsible for the racial environment in the Lowcountry in the early 21st century. But he looks at all that he and his colleagues accomplished in those storied campaigns and he thinks of what more might have been done. Those regrets are in his voice, and they are part of his story. Now that voice and that story will be preserved, thanks to Kerry Taylor and the Smithsonian Institution.