Looking back on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, distance tends to simplify matters. The current of history becomes reliant on those few rocks that breach the surface and break the waters in dramatic fashion, forging a narrative checklist of milestones and icons, glossing over the importance of widespread community action and grassroots activism that made it all possible. And as the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 captured the nation’s attention and entered the history books, black citizens from Newtown and around Sarasota County were fighting their own battle to desegregate area beaches, including arriving in caravans to stage “wade-ins” on Lido Beach as protest.

Locally, these events have been commemorated by the people of Newtown through the Newtown African American Heritage Trail, but the community’s proud history of activism only officially enters the national narrative this year, with the site recognized as the southernmost stop on the national US Civil Rights Trail. Newtown marked the occasion with a re-enactment of those famous wade-ins, as original participants and their descendants strode into the waters off Lido Beach. SRQ talked with Sheila Sanders, a lifelong Sarasotan who went to Booker Elementary School at the time, where she began her own life of activism. “I see myself as that little child that said the emperor has no clothes,” she says. “Fortunately, I was always surrounded by people who did not think my eagerness to participate should be stifled.”

You led your first boycott in the third grade, against a bank? Sanders:  Yes. Because they declined to give us a tour of their bank. They were supposed to be helping us learn to manage money and how to save, and they gave us accounts with special terms so that we would deposit money. Well, I found out that children from other schools were getting school tours. Booker was the only black school at that time and we asked them for a tour, and they declined.

How did you respond? I was a babysitter, and I had earned a quarter babysitting on two different times. So I had 50 cents. I went to the grocery store just down the street and got a roll of pennies and suggested that everybody either not put any money in, or that they only put in a penny, thinking it would cost the bank more to process than it was worth. My logic only got me in trouble because when the teacher asked why people were only depositing one penny, they said, “Well, Sheila Sanders told us. Said if they won’t give us a tour, we shouldn’t give them our money.” 

Even then, as young as third grade, it was clear to you that something was unfair there.   My principle is fairness. Because if you always do what is right, what is right will eventually happen to you. You may have some challenges, but what’s right will eventually happen for you.

At this time, the beaches were still segregated, right?   They never had a sign like the stores, restrooms and restaurants—and even the courthouse water fountains that said “white” and “colored.” But it was implied that if you were not white you were not welcome. And not just the beaches, the golf courses, everything. If you were not Caucasian, you were not welcome. Even trying to check out a book at the public library. If you were black, you had to show that your family owned property in Sarasota County. However, tourists could check out a book. So I used to go sit in the stacks at the library. I’d sit there and read for hours.

Because you couldn’t go to the beach.  What was said was that the tourists would be offended if they had to see your naked body. And then the same thing with shopping on Main Street. There were stores that would tell you, “If I let you put this dress on your back, who do you think is going to purchase it after?” or “If you put your foot in this shoe, who do you think is going to purchase this shoe?” People used to literally trace your foot and buy a shoe based on that trace. And this was in the ‘50s, here in beautiful Sarasota.

What did it mean to you, as a child, to see people moving to desegregate beaches in Sarasota?   I felt it was right. We lived here all the time. Why is it people who were visiting could go to the beach any time they wanted to and we had to go at sunset? At that time, believe it or not, in Sarasota, to be in a certain neighborhood, you had to have permission. You had to say who you were working for, what you were doing there.

What does it mean to see the Newtown African American Heritage Trail officially added as the southernmost stop on the US Civil Rights Trail?  It means that we were not asleep. We were aware, engaged and that we cannot nap now. My concern is that too many of us are now napping. It’s important that you know your history, you appreciate what those who have gone on before you have done and that you have no fear about being involved.

What do you make of the state of things today?   We can do better. We must do better.