The civil rights movement of the 1960s spawned great social changes and the emergence of a large group of African-American political leaders, put in power as a direct result of newly safeguarded black participation in the electoral process. For many years, though, no new generation of activists materialized to take the place of the heroic figures who initiated the civil rights struggle. That began to change in the 1990s as young people like Malika Sanders began to make their voices heard on a wide variety of issues that contributed to the world's ongoing cycles of poverty and oppression.
Malika Asha Sanders drew in her activist career on roots that extended into the very center of the early civil rights movement. She was born in 1973 in Selma, Alabama—several years after the tumultuous events that shook that segregated Southern town in the 1960s, but still close enough to them that Sanders could remember the power of people working together on a common cause. "I was born in a time of protest, when civil rights leaders would sleep in our house—as many as 50 or 100 curled up right there on the floor," she told Marie Claire.
Her parents were Harvard-educated lawyers who played major roles in the civil rights movement; her father, Hank Sanders, went on to become an Alabama state senator, and her mother, Rose, was a judge, a partner in Alabama's largest black-owned law firm, and author of the play, Follow the Path, which depicted a series of women struggling to overcome great odds. Malika Sanders also remembered her father's mother, a housekeeper with an eighth-grade education, as an influence. "She had an amazing way of standing up to people," Sanders told the My Hero Web site. "People in the community would come to her to have her settle problems."
When she was 12, Sanders decided to dedicate her life to fighting injustice and inequality. She later described the decision as a spiritual one, but it didn't take her long to put her ideas into practice. As a 15-year-old high school student in Selma, she realized that African-American students were routinely being tracked into lower-level classes rather than college-preparatory programs, regardless of their grades or test scores. The result was a new form of segregation. Sanders led a student walkout that began with just a few participants but grew into a series of marches and protest meetings that drew more than 100 students. The students formed an organization dubbed SMART—the Student Movement Against Racial Tracking.
The group staged a five-day sit-in, facing down FBI and National Guard forces called in by Selma mayor Joe Smitherman. The Ku Klux Klan erected a sign atop the school building where the students were ensconced. Sanders herself was arrested for the questionable crime of passing out leaflets. But in the end the students were victorious; impartial testing programs were implemented, and the Selma school board's white majority, which had terminated a black superintendent who had tried to take the students' side, was soon eliminated.
Sanders attended Spelman College in Atlanta, graduating with a degree in psychology. While she was there, she participated in protests including a shantytown, built on the campus of nearby Morehouse College, that hoped to persuade the United Nations to withdraw from the troubled African nation of Somalia. She also called for the elimination of the Confederate battle flag element in the design of Georgia's state flag, and she organized student protests against police brutality in the wake of the beating of black motorist Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles police. The normal path for Sanders might have involved a job in a large city, but she returned instead to Selma. "I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to go back," she told Marie Claire. "And yet, I felt a responsibility to Selma and the South; I wanted to develop a new generation of leaders who understood and continued the legacy of civil rights."
Soon Sanders became involved with an organization her mother had founded in 1985, the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement. The goal of the group was to involve young blacks in the political process and to register them to vote. Sanders had attended the group's summer camps when she was younger, and now she became its executive director. At the time, the group consisted of a small band of volunteers, but under Sanders it grew to a membership of 1,500 young people, organized into 32 chapters in the United States and three in Africa.
The newly empowered organization faced one of its first major challenges in Selma itself. The city's 2000 mayoral election featured a new attempt to dislodge Mayor Joe Smitherman, a former segregationist who had been in office since Selma's infamous Bloody Sunday in 1965 but had, through a combination of political compromise and efforts to minimize black voter turnout, remained in office even as Selma's black majority elected other black officeholders. Sanders and her fellow activists organized a massive "Joe Gotta Go" campaign, persisting in the face of tactics of intimidation on the part of Selma police.
"At first, people were too scared to honk" when the group held up signs along local roadways, Sanders told Marie Claire. "So we went to football games, to churches, door-to-door. We began to see change, a hope in people's eyes. For the first time ever, we forced a runoff." On Election Day, Selma saw a record 80 percent voter turnout as Smitherman went down to defeat at the hands of African-American candidate James Perkins Jr. For these and other efforts, Sanders was chosen to receive a Reebok Human Rights Award in 2002. The award carried a $50,000 grant, which Sanders plowed back into the 21st Century Youth Movement.
Sanders was ambivalent about the award. "It put me in the spotlight, instead of my organization, and my generation of activists believe we are all leaders," Sanders told the My Hero Web site. Nevertheless, it gave Sanders a new national platform. She gave a speech at the 2003 re-enactment of the 1963 March on Washington, leading 21st Century Youth members in a chant of "I must prepare my mind, body, and spirit; we are 21st-century leaders, so let's act like it," as quoted in the Washington Times.
Sanders has often been asked to address national meetings like the State of the Black World conference and the rapidly growing National Hip-Hop Political Convention, where she appeared in 2004. In a time of transition, Malika Sanders seemed a leader who could deepen and extend the idea of civil rights. "I want my child to walk in a world guided by love," she told Marie Claire. "This means that everybody will have a job, or the resources to take care of basic needs. A world where families are not oppressed and are connected to their neighbors and their communities, where the best in humanity is honored. That's when we will truly be at peace."
At a Glance …
Born in 1973 in Selma, AL; daughter of Hank and Rose Sanders, both lawyers, activists, and political leaders. Education: Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, BA, psychology.
Career: Political activist, 1980s–; 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, Selma, AL, executive director.
Awards: Reebok Human Rights Award, 2002.
Addresses: Office— 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, P.O. Box 2516, Selma, AL 36702.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 29, 1993, p. F5.
Bay State Banner, November 17, 1994, p. A2.
Essence, April 2002, p. 25.
Los Angeles Sentinel, December 12, 2001, p. A7.
Marie Claire, February 2002, p. 40.
Washington Post, August 22, 2003, p. C1.
"Community Hero: Malika Sanders," MyHero, http://myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp?hero=M_sanders (October 6, 2004).
"Malika Asha Sanders," Forefront, www.forefrontleaders.org/partners/north-america/malika-asha-sanders/ (October 6, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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