Over the next three decades, Hank Sanders became a fixture in the statehouse, ascending to the chairmanship of the Senate’s Finance and Taxation Education Committee. From his expansive office just off the Senate floor, he controlled Alabama’s Education Trust Fund, the largest operating budget in state government. Sanders tried to exercise his power to represent people who were unaccustomed to having a voice in Montgomery—namely poor, black Alabamans. He helped bring more money to their schools and their hospitals, better infrastructure to their neighborhoods, and greater fairness to their tax bills. Thanks to Sanders and a growing caucus of African American legislators, many of whom also chaired crucial committees, it was a period during which black people in Alabama enjoyed their most substantive political representation since Reconstruction. And Sanders, an exceptionally large man who suffered from severe obesity and whose supporters called him “The Rock,” was the cornerstone of the black political power structure in the state. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton faced off in Alabama’s 2008 Democratic primary, both candidates sought the endorsement of Sanders’s political organization; it went to Obama, and Obama won.
Sanders told me the story of his remarkable rise to power earlier this year, but his tone was more wistful than triumphant. For so long, his life had been an uplifting tale of slow but seemingly inexorable progress—not just for himself, but for African Americans throughout the South. In recent years, however, the trajectory of Sanders’s story has been abruptly—and just as inexorably—reversed. In 2010, Republicans took over the Alabama Senate and Sanders lost his chairmanship; in the four years since, he’s watched as the new GOP majority has systematically dismantled much of his life’s work.
-Jason Zengerle, in The New Republic, on the plight of black politicians in the South.