By: Leaundra Sanders, Development Director, ACLU of Arkansas

February and March are annual periods of reflection for me. Black History month gives way to Women’s History month, and I traditionally enjoy taking small moments to research well known African American women that helped make sweeping changes in our country. It is not lost on me that many of us are still battling some of the same biases and inequities that our ancestors faced. And by ancestors, my grandmothers come to the forefront of my mind. My recent ancestry dive has made me hyper aware that we are not so far removed from our country’s past as many would like to believe. Unfortunately, there are people in power who wish to erase the ugly truth of America’s indiscretions against people of color by eradicating the struggle of my people from books or even being mentioned in our school systems and institutions of higher learning.  

It is my hope that young people will do as I’ve done and take every opportunity to speak with those who have lived through decades of oppression. Oftentimes, it can be as simple as walking into the living room and conversing with a family member that is a part of the baby boomer generation, or even GenX, who are willing to give firsthand accounts of the marginalization that they have faced their entire lives. I do believe that a great oral tradition can rise from the ashes of the history that our leaders are attempting to burn. 

I will admit, the fact that I was raised by Arkansans who lived through some of the ugliest parts of our country’s racial bigotry are still subjected to vices such as institutional racism, racial profiling, misogyny, and voter suppression in 2024 is a heavy reality. My parents, aunts, and uncles began their educational journeys in segregated Arkansas schools and institutions right here in our very state. 

Memories of my grandmother Reaby Jane Evans Sanders, making an effort to vote in every election came flooding back to my mind. As I child, I did not readily understand why it was so important for her to do so, and why she took such pride in her little “I Voted” sticker. She would often take her grandchildren with her to the polling site and I would joke that if there was election held for best dog catcher, she would be first in line with her ballot.

But as an adult, I now understand that she did not always have the privilege to do so, and neither did her mother, or her grandmother. She valued, honored, and exercised her right to participate in the democratic process and was proud to do so. My grandmother was born in 1941, the same year as Emmett Till. She survived the Jim Crow Era and witnessed the thickness of racism and misogyny here in Arkansas, all while wishing for better days for civil and women’s rights.  

For many years, it was also lost on me why she was so vocal about wanting me to be able to “write my own ticket” in life, because she lived through an era where women could not open bank accounts, start businesses, or even buy property without the signature and consent of a man. She spent her entire educational journey within a segregated school system. When she married in 1960, they could not freely and comfortably purchase a home anywhere she pleased due to redlining for people of color. But it wasn’t until the moment she began crying as she walked through the doors of my first property that I realized: I am living her wildest dreams.

Her eldest grandchild, a Black woman, who has stood beneath space shuttles, shook hands with Presidents of countries both domestic and foreign, traveled to places she’d only seen in magazines, been on television, and obtained the first master’s degree in her family, had given her a sense of pride and hope for the future. The beautiful thing is, she did live to see life improve for both women and African Americans in Arkansas. My hope is that I will not have to wait until my grandchildren’s generation to see the same.