In 1965, while a college undergraduate, Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders joined Martin Luther King Jr. (center) in the march from Selma to Montgomery ~ Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images
Long before he became the most powerful man in the Alabama Senate, before he controlled billions of dollars in state money and had lobbyists, governors, and future presidents seeking his favor, Hank Sanders used newspapers and magazines as bathroom tissue. His mother would collect periodicals from the wealthy white family whose house she cleaned and bring them back for Sanders and his brothers and sisters. There were 13 children, all told, and they lived with their parents in a three-room shack that their father had built out of one-by-eight boards among the tall pines and chinaberry trees in Blacksher, a speck of a town 50 miles north of Mobile.
This was Alabama in the 1950s, when Jim Crow reigned and a governor’s race was determined by which candidate managed to secure the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. Life in Baldwin County, where Blacksher was located, may have been marginally less horrid for its black residents than in other parts of the state: The county’s last lynching had occurred in 1919 and some of the white men who perpetrated it had even gone to prison. But there were certain realities by which Sanders, as a black child, knew he must abide. He knew not to spend any of the money he earned picking cotton on the six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola at the drugstore; those were only for white customers, and a black person who tried to buy one risked more than just being refused service. He also knew not to look in the direction of a white woman. The one time he did, the woman’s male companion threatened to whip him, and probably would have had Sanders’s mother, a strong-willed woman named Ola Mae, not intervened. For Sanders, the fact that there was no electricity or running water in his house—to say nothing of toilet paper—was far less distressing than the constant threat of danger.
In 1954, when Sanders was twelve, he momentarily ignored the intended purpose of a magazine his mother had brought home and instead read an article about Thurgood Marshall’s work on Brown v. Board of Education. The case had no bearing on Sanders’s everyday life. Baldwin County’s schools were segregated and would remain defiantly so for more than a decade after his education in them. But Marshall’s legal heroics wormed their way into the back of Sanders’s mind, and when his seventh-grade teacher asked her students what they wanted to be when they grew up, Sanders surprised himself by saying, “A lawyer.” His classmates—whose professional aspirations tended toward farming or turpentine work—burst out laughing. Sanders began to cry; the other kids laughed even harder, which prompted even more tears. When the episode was finally over, Sanders resolved that he would become a lawyer (still not entirely sure what one was) just to prove his classmates wrong.