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Robert Saunders, a guiding force in civil rights, injured

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 6, 2003

TAMPA -- Robert Saunders, a Tampa native who performed groundbreaking work in Florida during the civil rights movement, remained in critical condition at a local hospital Wednesday following a weekend car crash.

While not as widely known as civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, Saunders was one of the most important players in the civil rights movement in this state.

The noted leader and author grew up in segregated Tampa and served on the front lines during the most volatile Jim Crow years. He was Florida NAACP field secretary after the murder of his predecessor, Harry T. Moore, in 1951. Saunders documented his experiences in a book titled Bridging the Gap: Continuing the Florida NAACP Legacy of Harry T. Moore 1952-1966.

Even at 81, Saunders remained active in the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, serving in an advisory capacity, said branch president Sam Horton.

Saunders would lead book signings and recruit members, hound branch leaders about keeping their roles in perspective and remind them to use past experiences in dealing with the future.

"He kind of served as ex-officio on all of our committees," Horton said. "And we have 24 committees."

According to the Tampa Police Department, Saunders' 1996 Buick was hit as he attempted to turn left into Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse from the northbound lanes of Dale Mabry Highway shortly before 3 p.m. Sunday. Saunders was extricated from his car and taken to St. Joseph's Hospital. The driver of the other car, a 1998 Jeep SUV, was not injured. The investigation into the accident is continuing, said police spokeswoman Katie Hughes.

Friends and relatives are keeping vigil around Saunders, who was born into a family of activists. His grandparents, Bahamian immigrants, helped found the Tampa branch of the NAACP in 1917.

He was involved in every major civil rights initiative in Florida, including desegregating schools, securing salary increases for black teachers, seeking affirmative action in government contracting and college admissions, desegregating public beaches and housing, halting police brutality and registering voters.

His fight for equality drew death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations.

After leaving the NAACP, Saunders supervised federal civil rights programs throughout the Southeast. He returned to Tampa in 1976 as an assistant county administrator working on minority business and fair housing issues. He retired in 1988, but when the Tampa NAACP was falling apart, Saunders was recruited to reorganize it.

"He's invaluable to us," Horton said.

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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