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Emma Sanders (1928–2020), civil rights activist who fought for voting rights and integrated delegations

by Linnea Crowther

Emma Sanders was a Mississippi civil rights and voting rights activist who helped bring an end to segregated delegations at the Democratic National Convention.

From Freedom Summer to the 21st century

Sanders became involved in civil rights activism in the early 1960s, when her son was participating in a campaign to end segregation in restaurants and churches. A concerned parent, she wanted to make sure her son was safe, and then she found inspiration to join the fight. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, as activists sought to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi, Sanders helped organize their efforts, as well as housing and feeding activists from out of state.

In that same year, Sanders and other Mississippi activists challenged the state’s Democratic Party for their practice of sending segregated delegations to the Democratic National Convention. The debate drew the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1968), who suggested a temporary solution that eventually led to the integration of the party’s delegations. Sanders remained active after the victory, running for Congress in 1966 and successfully suing to allow Black candidates on the ballot in Mississippi. She became a frequent delegate to Democratic National Conventions who was present when Barack Obama was nominated in 2008 and when Hillary Clinton was nominated in 2016. She had wished for Mississippi to remove the Confederate flag from its state flag – the decision to do so was announced four days after her death.

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Sanders on inspiring her family to be politically active

“They know that when they get to 18, they have to register, and I want them to vote. I check.” —from a 2016 interview with the Clarion-Ledger

What people said about her

Full obituary: The New York Times

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