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Bob Saunders, civil rights activist, dies

Published Mar. 19, 2003|Updated Aug. 31, 2005

Robert W. "Bob" Saunders, a leading civil rights activist in Florida for nearly a half century, died Tuesday from injuries suffered in a car crash last month. He was 81.

Mr. Saunders, a former state NAACP leader, is credited with groundbreaking work in the state during the turbulent 1950s and '60s that helped integrate schools, public beaches and housing and won higher pay for black teachers.

"He dedicated his life to his belief _ fighting for others," his son, Bob Saunders Jr., said Tuesday outside his father's home on Union Street.

Mr. Saunders' death marks the second loss of a local civil rights leader in less than a month. Former Tampa NAACP president and lifelong activist Bob Gilder died of heart failure Feb. 28.

The community will miss both greatly, Mayor Dick Greco said Tuesday.

"They had tremendous commitment to their beliefs and ideals," Greco said. "They fulfilled much of what their life was all about. If you can say that at the end, that's a pretty good deal."

As Florida NAACP field secretary, Mr. Saunders led drives for affirmative action in government contracting and college admissions, fought police brutality and worked to register voters.

In St. Augustine, he and NAACP staffer G. Frank Pinkston led early voter registration efforts that helped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

After leaving the NAACP in 1966, Mr. Saunders supervised federal civil rights programs throughout the Southeast.

He returned to Tampa from Atlanta as an assistant Hillsborough County administrator working on minority business and fair housing issues. He retired in 1988.

But a half-dozen years later, at age 72 and in the midst of finishing his memoirs, he agreed to become the NAACP's temporary, unpaid administrator in Tampa after the resignation of chapter's president, Hewitt E. Smith.

His grandparents, Bahamian immigrants, were founding members of the Tampa Chapter of the NAACP in 1917. Robert William Saunders grew up in Tampa's Roberts City, a neighborhood demolished during urban renewal.

Roberts City was on the western bank of the Hillsborough River, no more than a few blocks from where he lived until his death Tuesday.

"He's my only brother, and he's always been my mentor," said Norman Jackson, who recalled his brother playing several instruments and building model planes. "I don't care where we were, we'd sit down and talk about civil rights."

The neighborhood was home to black families and Italian and Spanish immigrants who rolled cigars side by side but were segregated in other spheres of city life.

"It was quite a neighborhood," Mr. Saunders recalled in 1999. "We all lived together there. We couldn't go to school together, we couldn't go to church together, but we played together."

After graduating from Middleton High School in 1940, he served in the Army and worked as a reporter at the black-owned Florida Sentinel-Bulletin in Tampa. He went to college at the Detroit Institute of Technology and the University of Detroit College of Law.

He didn't get a law degree, but it was in Detroit that he asked the NAACP if it was hiring. He was joking. Within a few weeks he had a telegram summoning him to the group's New York office. The message said: Be prepared to stay.

In New York, he worked for and with men like top NAACP official Walter White and Medgar Evers, later assassinated for trying to organize voters in Mississippi.

It was also in New York that he got the call to return to Florida. On Christmas night in 1951, a bomb blasted apart the home of Harry T. Moore, the NAACP's Florida field secretary. Moore and his wife were killed in a crime that never has been solved.

In early 1952, Mr. Saunders returned to Florida to take Moore's old job.

Mr. Saunders was critically injured Feb. 2 in a car crash along Dale Mabry Highway. His car was hit as he turned left into Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse, where he had gone to pick up dinner for his family after church.

He was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and later transferred to a long-term care facility. The driver of the other car was not injured.

On Tuesday evening, word spread at mayoral forums and churches and neighborhood meetings that Mr. Saunders had died. Before long, visitors were showing up at his home to visit as Ebony, the family dog, barked at each new arrival.

Mr. Saunders' widow, Helen, sat in the living room surrounded by friends and family. Nearby, dozens of plaques and honorary medals, along with a picture of Saunders and President John F. Kennedy, hung on the wood-paneled walls.

Bob Saunders Jr., took a look around.

"My dad lived a complete life," he said. "He fought the good fight."

_ Information from Times files and from Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, by Taylor Branch, was used in this report.

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