Sustaining02_Bill_medAs an 18-year-old combat veteran just home from Korea in the early 1950s, Bill Saunders returned to a hostile Jim Crow South and the harsh realization that he’d been wounded fighting for someone else’s freedom while the men and women who raised him on Johns Island went without basic human rights.

The experience helped shape his adult life.

An early officer in Johns Island’s Progressive Club, Saunders’ ferocious refusal to turn the other cheek in defense of equal rights for black people often put him at odds with the non-violent mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement. He never expected to survive the 1960s, much less live to become an elder in his community.

Yet somehow, he did. After an astounding career in public life that saw Saunders help organize Charleston’s successful 1968-69 Hospital Strike, purchase and operate a radio station, run for the State Senate, serve on multiple boards and commissions, and found Charleston’s Committee on Better Racial Assurance (COBRA), Saunders stands today as one of the island’s iconoclastic figures. He remains a lion of a man in his 70s, even as his perspective on human rights in recent decades has grown to embrace the struggles that many of his white neighbors have faced, too. — JIC


JIC: Did you like growing up on Johns Island?

WS: I liked growing up on Johns Island now (laughs).

You know, I look back, and I know some of us would look back now and say ‘You weren’t free, you didn’t have this, didn’t have that,’ but I was freer then than I’ve ever been. Because everything that we ate came from the river, from the woods, from our fields. We planted everything. My great-grandfather built his own house, built his own boat, made his own net. And we didn’t have any problem with people.

You know, owning your own land was important.   My grandfather used to say that you make sure when you get married that you live far enough away from anybody that you and your wife could have a fight and nobody would know that you’re fighting.

So they had all of this stuff. And after I started looking back, that was the best time in my life. That I was free. That was the only time in my life. Now I can’t even have a car in my yard on Johns Island without somebody coming to tell me ‘Well, you can’t have that all car in your yard,’ even though it’s on my property.

JIC: What does Johns Island mean to you?

WS: My Johns Island is everything to me. Maybe it’s my ancestry, or the African-ism and all that kind of stuff. Because land has always been a part of the African thing. All the whites that I’m around – not the Legares, because the folk that’s from here, they love the land. But the folk that come? The land is just something that’s an investment.

But the African Americans, the people that were originally from here? (They) really love the land, and (you have the sense) that God has given you that land.

JIC: Is it possible to preserve things like that, or do we need to take another approach?

WS: I’m on the Gullah Geetchee Commission from the coast of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina. And again, they have a problem with me because I don’t believe in the conservation and preservation (of places and cultures).

I believe that places should function. And any time you start preserving them, or conserving them, you’re killing the thing.

You’re putting it in a jar and putting it on a shelf somewhere.

So I don’t participate in that kind of stuff.

I want (the land) to continue to produce what it did for people so that they can use it all the time. So they don’t even have to think about it.

We planted sugar cane that we used to make syrup and all kinds of stuff. And all you have to do is cut the cane off and kind cover it over and then it will grow back next year. We planted benne – now y’all call that sesame seed – but benne, that we used to make our candy.

But my thing is I am for making things continue to function, and to do that you have to get young people and other people to work on that functionality. To make sure that it works.

JIC: How can we do that?

WS: That’s the real good question. And the way that I’ve been able to do it with a lot of stuff, not to the extent that this needs to be done, is first you’ve got to make sure that people understand the need. And the folk that we are living around don’t know the need.

We’ve got kids right now think that everything comes from the supermarket. So we have to educate them about how they could be self-sufficient. And we could be using people like Joseph Fields and some of the folks that own big farms over there to be the impetus for some of these things.

I mean, I would like to take some of the kids into the woods. There are nuts that grow wild that I grew up on, that we made candy and stuff out of. It’s still there. But nobody gathers those nuts anymore. So you have to teach the history of what brought us safe, thus far.

I didn’t realize until the 1980s that my great-grandfather was born a slave. He died in 1953, was born in 1862. He never mentioned slavery, or hard times, or suffering. And he ended up like I told you, built his own boat, built his own house. Probably been to the city of Charleston two or three times in his life. Never saw a medical doctor.

So I use his life right now in teaching young people. The kind of life that he lived. He ate pure food. None of the crap we’re being given today. He had a religious belief in God. And he lived and died peacefully.

These folks in my church now that are dying, they’re between the ages of 40 and 60. And they’re dying with all kinds of diseases. When all the elders from slavery lived to be 100, or right around in that vicinity. Now 40 to 60, we got all kinds of disease.

JIC: Do people hear you when you talk about this?

WS: They hear me, but when I talk to people it’s usually in small groups. Johns Island Concerned Citizens, or the Concerned Citizens for the Sea Island, Thomas Legare and a lot of these folks want to broaden it, bring in 100 people, 200 people.

I don’t want to do that. I want to have a small cadre of people, until we get them to the point that they can teach. And we’ve got to bring in some younger folk that can teach, because the people that teach young folk are young folk.

JIC: There’s a movement – some people call it the Greenhorn Movement – where young, educated, often urban people without any background in farming are turning back to the land because they’re looking for a more independent and authentic way of making a living. But all the people I’ve met from that movement have been white people. Have you met any black people who might fall into that category?

WS: A few people, but see, again, you have to have the understanding. When my brother from Johns Island left Johns Island and went to New York, he said – and God, he used to be able to say some profound things – he said, “I will never tell another mule ‘Get up’ again if I meet him in my bed.”

Do you understand that?

We used to work what we called ‘From Kin to Kant.’ From when you ‘kin see in the morning ’till when you ‘kant see at night. And we had very little.

Nobody realized the value of that, because in that time when we did all of that hard work, I never knew one fat person on Johns Island when I was growing up. None. There was some large-built guys and women, but not fat.

And we ate a lot!

But none of that is being taught to anybody. And the more formal training my people get, the less likely they are destined to do anything good like what you’re talking about. Because they’re being trained by other people.

 JIC: There’s a critique of some conservation and preservation efforts that they’re just protecting the scenic vistas until the people with roots in the land can be displaced in favor of newcomers with money. Any thoughts on how we can avoid doing that here?

WS: Well again, we have to go back to the past and do the education. I saw some young people, black young kids, getting off the school bus yesterday, and they had on dungarees with holes in the knees. What this country has done is it has advertised to them…. and got folks feeling good walking around with holes in their pants. Got them paying $150 for pants with holes in them.

 So you’re talking about a re-education process.

What I would like to do with my church (would be to find) 15 to 30 young people that you start working with. Not masses. Just with them.

I want to use Jesus and John the Baptist’s position on this stuff. I want to find someone who wants to do it. I don’t want to find someone and make them do it. Find the folk that want to come to me, and we’re going to make this work. But first you’ve got to come and want to.

JIC: About the the young people on Johns Island. Do they want to stay?

WS: I don’t think that most of them have raised even that question. I don’t think it’s been whether they want to stay or whether they want to leave. Like I told you, I’ve got 18 grand kids, and I’ve got about 12 of them on Johns Island. I doubt they’ve even given it that much of a thought, because it is home. And most of them are pretty much contented. I think the two or three generations before them were the (ones with) discontentment.

But I would like to be able to raise those kinds of questions. I do some stuff at Sunday School.

You know, all of the leadership on Johns Island basically started in my church (Wesley United Methodist Church). Esau Jenkins did it starting in the 1930s. And we’ve still got that.

But they all need a reason for being, and most of the people there don’t have a reason for being. They just go day-to-day. And some of them would get almost the way I am, just waiting to die.

We’ve got some folk over there who have so much intellect. Elderly people. There’s a guy over there named Robert Lee. Master carpenter… And Isaac Robinson… used to run what they called You Build. Used to work with young folk who were in trouble. But he’s still there and he’s still working. But all of those guys need to be brought out to talk.

 JIC: The pitfall we’re trying to avoid is that in recognizing a problem and bringing together people of good intentions – particularly outsiders and new arrivals — to work on solutions, sometimes you can wind up making matters worse, or creating new problems. How can we avoid that?

WS: I’ve run into this over and over again, (where people who want to help) come in a lot of times feeling sorry for the people. And they’ve got the solution to the people’s problem, when they don’t even know what the problem is. People that have come with all kinds of good intentions, but they have no idea where the people are in their own traveling, or what their needs are.

But if they come in like some of the folk I’ve been able to run into, they come in thinking that they want to learn. They end up getting an education while they help.

JIC: How could we do that on Johns Island?

WS: Well, I think you’re already starting to do it. I think you’re doing it now. You don’t have all the answers. You don’t even have all the problems. But you’re working toward those things.

And see, what God has allowed me to do – although I complain and feel sorry for myself – God has allowed me to enjoy the process. Just the process. And that process continues to evolve. As you learn this, you automatically get another step, and you continue, without being burdened down. And that’s what I’ve enjoyed all of my life.