It’s been around 50 years, and Robert Sanders still remembers the phone call.
Sanders was around 10 years old when he’d decided to stay home on a Sunday night as the rest of his family had gone to Friendship Baptist Church to watch his father, Willis Sanders — then the president of the Schenectady NAACP — be interviewed on “30 Minutes.” The show, a local companion newsmagazine to CBS’ national flagship “60 Minutes,” was spotlighting Willis Sanders’ fight for a monument in Schenectady memorializing locals who fought and died in the wars in Vietnam and Korea to have a Black man presented among the figures depicted, as was contracted.
While the interview was airing, the phone at the Sanders home rang and Robert picked up.
“It was a local white supremacist,” Robert Sanders said in a phone interview, “who followed with, ‘N—— , I’m going to kill you. I’m coming to kill you.’”
Robert hung up, and immediately dialed his parents at the church. They told him to stay at home and keep the doors locked, and they’d be home in a few minutes.
Young Robert, who’d go on to a career in the U.S. Navy that included a stint as the director of the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies and who now chairs the national security program at the University of New Haven, was shaken to his core.
“Imagine my youthful shock,” he said. “I answered my home phone to that. One of my Schenectady neighbors, or local upstate New Yorkers, with venom and hatred for my dad’s attempt to get the right thing done.”
While Robert never saw any follow-up on the threat, he said he’s certain his father faced more outward pressure as he fought for justice and representation — especially as the first city resident to be a casualty of the Vietnam War was a Black soldier, James Pittman, whose family was close with the Sanders family.
Willis Sanders, according to his children, was always fighting for what was right.
After serving in the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater of World War II, Willis Sanders moved his family from Brooklyn to Schenectady in the early 1950s with the promise of federal government work at the post office.
That never materialized, said his daughter, Diane Sanders Hombach.
“There were certain people who didn’t like that,” Sanders Hombach said. “They said, ‘Well, why don’t we go to the post office and let them work in the drudgery of the [General Electric] plants?’ When the African-American gentlemen who were promised jobs with the federal government moved here, the jobs were no longer there. That’s when they all went to work at GE, which included my dad.”
Even as Willis Sanders forged his career at GE, he continued to encounter systemic racism.
When he went to purchase his first home in the early 1960s, Sanders Hombach said, her father found that the GI Bill didn’t cover home loans for Black veterans.
“My father’s white attorney had to co-sign for his loan to buy a home,” Sanders Hombach said, “because they would not allow African-Americans to use that bill.”
As a man who spent his life fighting against the injustices he saw, Willis Sanders’ children said that when the issue over the memorial cropped up, he had no choice but to step in and help lead the charge to make things right.
When the monument was commissioned, the contract the city agreed to with a local headstone maker specified that one of the figures carved in relief on the memorial would be depicted as a Black man.
Upon delivery, all of the figures depicted on the memorial were white.
That’s when Willis Sanders entered the fight.
“He said, ‘What happened here?’” Robert Sanders said. “The contracted manufacturer said, ‘Well, I decided I wanted to make them all white.’ My father said, ‘That’s not acceptable. The contract, the agreement with the city was to recognize the service and the sacrifice of one of our own — the first one in the city to die as part of this war — and your individual decision to change that can’t stand.’”
Willis Sanders marshaled the local NAACP, and in concert with the city government, got the manufacturer to take back the monument and re-carve the figures so that, as contracted, one of the figures depicted would be a Black man — properly honoring Pittman’s sacrifice as the city’s first soldier lost in Vietnam.
The memorial, located in Veterans’ Park across from the Schenectady County Courthouse, bears the inscription, “Dedicated to those of Schenectady County that served for the peace of the world. God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to guard and defend it.”
Below that is an image of six figures, carved in relief.
Five are depicted white — four men, one woman.
The sixth is depicted as a Black soldier. A testament both to the first local casualty of Vietnam, and of the fight Willis Sanders — who died in 1986 — waged to ensure the right thing was done.
“He’s been fighting all along in this struggle,” Sanders Hombach said of her late father. “This was just another struggle, in my mind, to right a wrong in Schenectady.”