By Quentaisha Warren
Erma Lee Saunders
“Never underestimate skin color, because that is the first thing people see when they look at you.”
Erma Lee Saunders was born in Holly Springs July 25, 1944, to the late J. T. and Katie Saunders and raised in Mt. Pleasant about 15 minutes outside of town. She was the oldest of 11 children and helped care for her siblings. She dropped out of school in eighth grade to work at home.
At 21, she had her first child and got a stable job at the local post office so she could raise her daughter just 20 minutes from Memphis. “I was at work when a customer came in and said Martin Luther King Jr. just got killed,” said Saunders, who remembers her father coming to retrieve her from work that day, fearing that violence would escalate. Later, she said she couldn’t go to the grocery store or church without someone bringing up King’s assassination.
Fournice Saunders, Erma Lee’s sister, said she rode with her father the day he came to collect her sister from work. He was upset and wanted all of his children out of harm’s way.
Erma Lee cried when she watched King’s death on the news. In the days following the assassination, she said the Lorraine Motel was surrounded by hurt African Americans who admired King, and protests continued for weeks.
She and her then boyfriend attended one of the protests, but they left after only 30 minutes because police arrived and began physically handling the protestors. She didn’t want to get hurt.
Saunders said her pastor dedicated a Sunday to King. Her church began holding black history programs, and churches and pastors tried to get in touch with King’s family to donate money and demonstrate love and compassion.
When she returned to work, the community acted differently. Her white manager behaved awkwardly, and customers wouldn’t come to her checkout line. “I was confused,” she said. “It was not like us blacks did something to them; they took one of our leaders and had the nerve to act funny.”
Holly Springs was mostly comprised of African Americans with a small percentage of whites with money, and Saunders said they made sure African Americans knew it. She assumed they felt threatened after the assassination because few were seen after the tragedy until months later when they began to reappear around town.
“I was blessed to be safe and not in the drama mix, but I was well aware of what was going on,” she said. “My people were hurt, and I was too, but I would never turn to violence. Being alive to see some of the things I have seen has made me grow as a person. I have knowledge of what people can do, and I always stay to myself because of that. Never underestimate skin color, because that is the first thing people see when they look at you.”