Emma Sanders, Southern Civil Rights and Political Activist, Dies at 91

Emma Ruby Lee Dunbar was born on Sept. 24, 1928, in Claiborne County, on the Mississippi River, near Vicksburg. She was the daughter of Abram Dunbar, a vocational agriculture teacher and high school principal, and Sarah Brown Miller.

She graduated from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) in Lorman, Miss., the nation’s first Black land grant college, and studied toward a master’s degree in business at Indiana University in Bloomington.

She taught in Jefferson County, Miss., and in Jackson, and later served as the executive director of Hinds County community action programs. While working as an assistant to Representative Wayne Dowdy, a Mississippi Democrat, she played a role in the naming of the first federal building in the nation for a Black person, the Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Building in Jackson, which honored a local dentist, insurance executive and civic leader.

She married William Sanders, and they lived in Jackson, running a restaurant together as well as a business school. In addition to their son Everett, she is survived by their sons William, Antonio and Johnathan; a daughter, Sarita Sanders Donaldson; her brother, Abram Dunbar; her sister, Carrie Parrot; 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

It was Everett who drew Mr. and Mrs. Sanders to activism in the early 1960s when, as a student, he joined a campaign demanding that Blacks be served in all-white restaurants and be allowed to worship in any church they chose. But his parents jumped in to take the lead.

“Most Black parents were telling their kids, ‘You can’t do this. it’s too dangerous,’” the Rev. Edwin King recalled. “She decided as a mother that some adults needed to be involved.”

Or, as Everett said of his parents, “They came along and they moved to the head of the class.”