By Barney Blakeney
In today’s world so many live in the moment, oblivious to how the past affects them daily. And so, for many the name William ‘Bill’ Saunders may only seem a shadowy familiarity, disconnected from the activities that shape their present.
Born and raised on Johns Island in 1935 in a modest family typical of the multi-generational inter-related households that defined many family units on the rural Sea Islands, Saunders grew up special. His mother, Sarah Pinckney Clement Saunders met his father, Antiqua native William Saunders, in New York City, N.Y. They sent 18-month-old Bill back to Johns Island to be raised along with two older siblings by his mother’s parents, William and Julia Pinckney. It was an upbringing that would shape Saunders and propel him into a life of service and commitment to helping others.
Quick witted and deliberate, Saunders early in his life realized that education was an avenue leading to success and achievement so he read and studied constantly while attending Mt. Zion Elementary School. Like other Black children he walked to school as white children rode buses often hurling insults and debris from the buses as they passed. He saw how local white law enforcement officers terrorized Blacks, sometimes killing them without consequence. Life was hard. Saunders wanted the right to live peacefully and productively.
Saunders went on to Burke High School, but the Korean War offered an opportunity. At 15, he lied about his age, joined the Army and went off to fight. He was wounded in Korea, but again was denied the rights enjoyed by others. He was not awarded the Purple Heart earned by others wounded in combat. When he returned from war he continued his education graduating from Laing High School.
Saunders’ son Byron Saunders said two things launched his father in a path of activism – his experiences growing up on Johns Island and realizing upon his return from the Korean War that he had fought to obtain rights and freedoms for others across the ocean that he couldn’t enjoy at home.
On Johns Island, Esau Jenkins (July 3, 1910 – October 30, 1972) was a human rights leader, businessman, and community organizer who helped improve the political, educational, housing, health and economic conditions of Sea Island residents. He founded The Progressive Club, a co-op started in 1948 by Jenkins and other families on John’s Island.
The co-op housed a community grocery store, gas station, recreation area, sleeping rooms, classroom space and allowed residents to trade goods and services to help each other in times of need. The first Citizenship School was established at the Progressive Club. The school was so effective that it served as the model for other Citizenship Schools established throughout the South to teach adult education, basic literacy and political education classes and workshops, resulting in thousands of citizens becoming registered voters. Jenkins became one of Saunders’ mentors.
In the 1960s, Saunders gained a reputation as an advocate of Black Power. It was then he became a commentator on Charleston’s only radio station promoting Black culture and entertainment, WPAL. During those years he would be elected to the Charleston County O.E.O Commission and serve as a negotiator for the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969. At WPAL Saunders rose from commentator to vice president with seven percent ownership, to general manager and ultimately to 100 percent ownership in 1986. In 1970, Saunders established the committee In Better Racial Assurance (COBRA) Human Services Agency. Also in 1970, he was co-founder of the United Citizens Party, South Carolina’s fourth political party. And in 1971, he was appointed to the S.C. Human Affairs Commission.
Now 85, Saunders list of participation in civic activities runs almost as long as his list of recognitions and awards. He finally was awarded the Purple Heart in 2002. Today, Saunders rests quietly at home, his body worn by 70 years of activism. He’s unmoved that some don’t know or have forgotten all he’s accomplished. Now his battle is with boredom.