Home Base: Harry Sanders' legacy and how we can define its impact


Zack Plair



My father has always been a walking repository of profound colloquialisms. Each were either passed down to him directly from generations of our family or by cultural osmosis from his nearly 70 years living in Southeast Arkansas.


Probably his favorite parenting practice -- when I was a child and, frankly, now -- is offering me these nuggets of wisdom at the appropriate time with little explanation, trusting I'll accurately interpret the context on my own.


One that has always stuck out: "People may not remember much else, but they always remember the last thing they see."



Said another way, "You can pitch eight perfect innings, but if you give up the game-winning homer in the ninth, that's what people will remember most."


For Harry Sanders, the "first eight innings" of his political career on the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors have been far from perfect. But warts and all, they have been effective.


His leadership played a key role in building the county tax base to more than $1 billion and establishing a trust fund for the county, which will provide riches for Lowndes County for generations to come. Despite his penchant for speaking out of turn and off-the-cuff, his contributions to the county conversation were arguably more positive than negative. Many have long regarded Sanders a little crude, a little brash and at least "a little bit racist," but they've often followed that up with "but he gets things done." Sanders' personal shortcomings, by virtue of his political savvy, have routinely been dismissed with, "That's just Harry."


Until Monday.


His comments to one of our reporters about slaves being given everything before they were freed and that blacks are still "dependent" in American society today because of it, shows an ugly and raw underbelly to Mr. Sanders' ethos that bring unequivocally to light his view of certain minorities as "less." This also underscores that every time we laughed off his less egregious statements of the like because we thought he was surely joking -- he wasn't.


If Monday had never happened, it would be fair to say the septuagenarian Sanders had already entered the twilight of his political career. Whatever his "legacy" would have been before, it now will be defined by those racist remarks. Whether he resigns, as so many including this newspaper have called on him to do, or if he stubbornly sticks it out through his term, those comments will follow him out the courthouse door. They will continue to speak to the legend of who Harry is as a leader and a man long after he is gone from this Earth.


And regardless of his excuses, or his attempts to disparage a Dispatch reporter in other media by falsely claiming his statements were made "off the record," the voice on the damning audio recording of the interview is his. He did all this to himself.


Even with the pain caused by his statements, what happened next has lent a silver lining that could prove a most positive, albeit unintentional, attribution to Harry Sanders' legacy. By him speaking "his truth," this moment may make him the unwitting catalyst to some much-needed understanding and changes in Golden Triangle race relations.


The groundswell of anger, disgust and condemnation for Sanders' statements has transcended race and political party. More to the point -- contrary to so many stories we learn in history about change in the South being achieved from "outside agitation" -- this outright rejection of the supervisor's world view has been local.


Those 150-plus who gathered at the Lowndes County Courthouse Wednesday morning to call for Harry's resignation weren't "Hollywood liberals" mad about our license plates. They weren't just African Americans, either. They represented on a greater scale than I had even expected, the general local citizenry.


Beyond that, local business and industry leaders -- usually the very wagons that circle Harry when he "misspeaks" -- have come out in force to condemn these words. Then there's Trip Hairston, a white Republican supervisor who voted with Sanders Monday to keep a Confederate monument on the courthouse lawn. Now, not only has he called for Sanders to relinquish his title as board president (although he so far has not called on him to resign), Hairston has done an about-face on whether to relocate the monument and is even willing to re-examine whether he believes the state flag should be changed to not include the Confederate battle emblem.


That statue is all but relocated at this point. You could conceivably see supervisors pass a resolution asking the Legislature to change the flag. As recently as Monday morning, that was considered impossible.


In less than 48 hours, a long recalcitrant, conservative grip on Lowndes County politics has softened because, at long last, Harry Sanders forced its perpetrators to look in the mirror. And the public is now holding the mirror in front of them so they cannot look away.


Here again, in what is sure to be his last gasp of political relevancy, Harry Sanders "got things done," in a way. He's certainly no hero for this, of course. That designation is for the people who, when faced with yet another chance to say, "That's just Harry," instead have cried, "Enough." He said words. We define their impact.


For me, that's been the most pleasant surprise of all this. And this whole ordeal has reminded me of something else my father likes to tell me.


"People might fool you for a while. But given enough time and opportunity, they'll show you exactly who they are."




Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.


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