State Senator Hank Sanders | Alabama

February 10, 2015

Alabama State Senator Henry “Hank” Sanders, of Selma, was inspired to become a lawyer at the age of 12 after reading an article about Thurgood Marshall. His pursuit to follow in Marshall’s footsteps has been punctuated by awards and achievements that would make the Supreme Court Associate Justice proud.

During his early years, Sanders lived in a three-room house with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. Three rooms, not three bedrooms. “The house never had paint on it. Boards covered cracks. It had no windows, no electricity, no water,” he said. “That house defined us to a lot of people. It defined us to others; it defined us to ourselves.” Eventually the family grew to include 13 children. The family moved into a six-room house. “The six-room house changed my concept of myself, my brothers and sisters, and it changed other people’s concept of us, too. I learned firsthand that when people can get sewage and water, it makes life easier and better.”

When Sanders was 13, his teacher asked students in class to stand in front of the class on Friday afternoons and tell the group what they wanted to be when they grew up. Sanders speculated that she wanted to help them remember and keep their focus on their goals through the weekend. His mother worked for a white landowner who gave her the family’s used newspapers and magazines. In one of them, Sanders read about Thurgood Marshall and was inspired to become a lawyer and follow in his footsteps. The next time the teacher had him stand up and share his dream, his dream had changed and he informed the class of his plan to pursue a career in law. “The boy next to me snickered, and then the one next to him snickered. Soon, the whole class was laughing,” he recalled. “I started to cry. The more I cried, the more they laughed. The more they laughed, the more I cried. The teacher eventually came to me at the front of the room and put her arm around me and I took my seat. I thought to myself that I would become a lawyer if it killed me. However, I didn’t tell anyone else about my dream. But from that moment on, whenever I thought I wasn’t going to fulfill a dream, I used that memory of that painful experience to inspire me to hold on.”

Sanders graduated near the top of both his high school and college classes and won the Catherine Wardell Award during his freshman year as the “student who contributed most to Talladega College” the previous year. He attended Harvard Law School on a Felix Frankfurter Scholarship “for poor young men who show great promise” and served as the President of Harvard Black Law Students Association. He received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Talladega College in 2008.

A Ford Foundation Fellowship took him to Africa for a year following law school, and the Reginald Heber Smith fellowship brought him back to Alabama the following year to provide legal services to the poor in Huntsville. He founded his own law firm, Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, and Pettaway in 1971, which at one time was the largest African American-owned firm in Alabama, as well as one of the largest in the country. Sanders dedicated a large portion of his law practice to helping poor and African American people save their land and protect their Constitutional rights.

And he continues to balance the progress that has been made with the continued challenges that remain. As one of the key organizers of annual events around the Bloody Sunday anniversary in Selma, Senator Sanders emphasizes that there is much work to be done to ensure opportunities for black citizens in Alabama and maintain the fight to continue dreams that are still yet to be achieved.

Sanders fulfilled many dreams in the years since he first shared with his classmates. In the days that have passed since that fateful day in his young life, his perspective about the circumstances has changed. “When I first sat down and tried to figure out why people laughed at me for saying I wanted to be a lawyer, I thought it was because I stuttered a bit and was shy. Then I thought it was because I lived in a three-room house or because I came from a large family,” he said. “It took me some time to finally realize that the reason they were laughing was because they couldn’t see me being a lawyer, or even themselves, because they had never seen a black lawyer. They couldn’t see anyone in the classroom doing it. It told me how important examples and role models can be.”