Persistence Is the Key: An Interview with Gray Panther Eddie Sandifer

Picture of three people facing camera with arms around each other. Caption reads "Eddie Sandifer, left, and friends at the Southeastern Gay Conference"

courtesy Eddie Sandifer

Magazine cover with three photos of elderly people

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 2/3, "Older Wiser Stronger: Southern Elders." Find more from that issue here.

The stage was set for a major confrontation in Mississippi when newly elected Governor Cliff Finch kept his campaign promise in 1975 to create the Mississippi Health Systems Agency (HSA), a group that would determine the state's health care priorities and distribute federal appropriations. The HSA, which represents providers and recipients with a fair apportionment according to race and sex, replaced an agency created by former governor Bill Waller that was run by the medical establishment. The local HSA bodies, called sub-area councils, would be democratically elected at public meetings. 

Conservatives, led by the Nursing Home Association and the administration of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, fought for local control at the Jackson meeting to elect sub-area council representatives, packing the meeting with medical students and relatives of white doctors. Opposing them was a coalition of progressives organized by health-care providers, civil-rights leaders, and advocacy groups. The People's Slate, as it was called, nominated Eddie Sandifer, a Jackson Gray Panthers leader, for the seat designated to be held by a nursing home administrator. 

On the Monday before the election, staff and residents of the Magnolia Home for Convalescents, where Sandifer worked, held their weekly meeting. They agreed to support Sandifer's candidacy, and co-workers from all three shifts and many members of the residents' families agreed to bring their vehicles to transport people from the nursing home to the meeting hall. 

The elections meeting began at 2 p.m., and the auditorium was packed to overflowing with well over a thousand people. All across the back of the hall were elderly people in wheelchairs who had come to support the People's Slate, and especially to cast their votes for Eddie Sandifer. 

The elections dragged on for hours, and people drifted away. Many of the elections were settled by compromises, but there was no compromise on the nursing home administrator seat. Sandifer was simply not acceptable to the establishment, and they stalled for time. The Nursing Home Association was particularly incensed that Sandifer, as a nursing home administrator, put money saved from efficiently running the Magnolia home into employee benefits like health insurance, instead of into profits. After several hours, Sandifer decided that many of the nursing home residents would have to return to their beds. But they refused to go; a number wet themselves, but would not allow anyone to take them out of the hall. Five hours into the meeting the vote came. Sandifer got over 300 votes, to 68 for the conservatives' choice. A cheer went up. And for weeks afterward, the HSA election remained the main topic of conversation for those living at the Magnolia nursing home. 

From that time on there's been no turning back. Each time the legislature threatens to cut benefits to the poor and to the elderly, wheelchairs line the rotunda and the halls of the Mississippi capitol, along with busloads of people brought from the far corners of the state by the NAACP and other organizations. And as at the HSA election, no one can persuade any of the contingent to return to their nursing homes before they meet with the appropriate representatives and senators. 

When the second HSA election rolled around in 1976, Sandifer was again opposed by a candidate from the Medical Center. He won re-election in a breeze. The medical establishment, from doctors to wealthy operators of nursing homes, decided to punish him for his political success. A campaign of official harassment began against the Magnolia nursing home where Sandifer worked; state regulatory agencies demanded an excruciatingly exact enforcement of regulations that only the most modern home could meet. Clearly, this harassment would stop only when he was no longer Magnolia's administrator; therefore, despite staunch support from the residents and staff, Sandifer chose to resign. 

Eddie Sandifer wasn't discouraged. He just switched hats and became a full-time organizer and advocate — and even more of a thorn in the side of his opponents. He became a community worker for the Mississippi Mental Health Project, which had been set up by Central Mississippi Legal Services. He continues to serve on the HSA, now in a seat designated for a consumer representative. 


Activism came early to Eddie Sandifer. He was born in 1929 in Cotton Valley, Louisiana, the son of a Baptist minister. His family moved to southern Mississippi while he was a toddler, and he grew up there. He was openly gay as a teenager in the 1940s, and even then distributed literature and circulated petitions he received from leftwing organizations. His family accepts his sexual preference, and, for the most part, accepts his politics, although they consider some of his stands a bit extreme. Eddie Sandifer has been a politically radical activist for so long that his reputation is legendary among those struggling for gay liberation, or attempting to unionize health care providers, or fighting for the needs of the poor and elderly. 

Sandifer experienced attacks from the right when he was in his teens. In the late '40s, Oliver Emmerich, the publisher of the McComb Enterprise-Journal, ran a front-page editorial calling upon the good citizens of Pike County to tar and feather Sandifer and run him out of town. Emmerich failed, Sandifer recalls with glee. 

There are plenty of current critics, too. Ever since the Mississippi Gay Alliance was formed in 1973, Sandifer has been its spokesperson and best-known leader. The Alliance has been involved in many activities, from an ongoing hot-line for the gay community to a heavy involvement in Jackson municipal politics to participation in major mass activities such as the nationwide anti-Klan march in Tupelo and weekly peace vigils in Jackson. 

One of Sandifer's most caustic critics is Richard Barrett, a Jackson attorney, segregationist, and perennial fringe candidate for public office who says he is "making a career of restoring Americanism in this country." Barrett describes Sandifer as a communist-sympathizing homosexual who "is a tragic aberration of nature, just like a mulatto. I'm not surprised that Eddie would be fellow-traveling with red-tainted and black-tainted groups. On his side you find red and black, whereas on our side you find red, white, and blue." 

Another critic is the Reverend Mike Wells, Mississippi's Moral Majority leader from 1982 through 1984. Wells agrees with Barrett that Sandifer is destined for hell if he fails to repent of his homosexual lifestyle, and he publicly (and unsuccessfully) opposed an attempt by Sandifer and others to establish the Metropolitan Community Church of Jackson as a place of worship and fellowship primarily for lesbians and gay men. A media confrontation erupted when Sandifer publicly alleged that churches all over Mississippi, including Wells's own Mountain View Baptist Church in Raymond, had practicing homosexuals as members in good standing. 

Occasionally the wrath of Sandifer's enemies erupts into physical violence. One morning about three years ago, at two o'clock, there was a knock at his door. Sandifer, half asleep, opened it and was punched in the face by a person who immediately fled. On another occasion that year there was an arson attack on his home, which fortunately burned only the front door. Recently an anonymous caller threatened to blow up the building where the Gray Panthers' office is located. 

Threats against Sandifer's life are increasingly frequent. He attributes the escalation to the growth of reactionary trends in general and of extreme "pro-family" and anti-gay sentiments in particular. As President Reagan and his supporters have pushed the profamily line, or when there is any gaybaiting by politicians, attacks on him increase, Sandifer explains. 

No one is more anxious about the threats than Sandifer's sister, Sandy Cliburn. She believes that if Sandifer were less outspoken and if those who threatened him knew him personally the threats would end. "Eddie is so open about everything; he doesn't try to hide anything. He is very compassionate. He goes out of his way to do things for people," says Cliburn. 

Asked what kind of a man his father is, Sandifer's 13-year-old adopted son Bobby Smith replies, "He's a good man. He does what he wants to do. Nobody tells him what to do." Bobby's favorite sport is baseball, and he likes math, though not as much as he likes girls. His favorite father-son activity is helping out at the Gray Panthers' office. He too worries about Sandifer's safety. 

Sandifer just shrugs off the attacks. He knows they don't influence the elderly people involved with the Gray Panthers. These days When someone whispers a warning about the "queer communist" to one of Sandifer's constituents, he or she usually calls him up to report the incident and reassure him: "It doesn't matter what they call you, Eddie. We're with you." 


Sandifer's involvement with issues affecting the elderly began after a stint in the army from 1950 to 1953 and a smattering of college on the GI Bill. He went to work as a nursing home administrator in Jackson in 1955 and over the next few years opened up several nursing homes in other parts of Mississippi for his employers. He was also the first operator in Mississippi to allow a black person to live in a previously all-white intermediate-care facility. 

As a nursing home administrator, Sandifer encouraged political activism in the people around him, both nursing home residents and co-workers — "I never call them my employees," he points out. He helped organize health care providers into a union, fought for a patients' Bill of Rights and educated fellow activists about it, and organized residents and co-workers to participate in various demonstrations. Along the way Sandifer developed close working ties with black leaders fighting for improved health care. These days Sandifer is chiefly known as the organizer who made the Jackson Gray Panthers a powerful community force. 

The Jackson Gray Panthers grew out of a trip to a Hard Times conference in Chicago in 1976. Early battles at the HSA and around Medicaid were key to the formation of the chapter, but so were the people who worked with it: Dora Erving, Mamie Emfinger, Chris Elam, Ethel Moore, Lampkin Moore, and Eddie Sandifer and his sister Sandy Cliburn. The Panthers began work at that time on nursing home issues, a commitment they continue to this day. 

They also have taken on many issues of general concern to the elderly including federal budget cuts, abuse of the elderly, health care, long-term care, and making it possible for the elderly to live at home. Two task forces currently meet regularly: housing and Medicaid/health. Only a small number of people pay dues, but the phone tree can pull in 300 to 500 people for meetings and phone banking. Four Gray Panthers have seats on the HSA. 

Sandifer's knowledge increases both the quality and the quantity of services he provides. "Eddie knows Medicaid, he knows Medicare, he knows everything in the world there is to know about serving the elderly," insists George Sadka, a medical social worker in Jackson. "He knows the resources in this city, in this county, in this state. I think he's doing an excellent job for the elderly." Sandifer has been the Panthers' elected project director since 1979, living on what he could raise for the chapter, never earning more than $200 a month himself. He says he is project director because no one else could live on so little money; he can because he shares a home with his sister, who supports his work and receives contributions from others at times. 


Many of the struggles that have engaged Mississippi's elderly and the Gray Panthers in particular have been protracted ones. An example was the struggle waged by Medicaid recipients against so-called "co-payments," a requirement imposed by the all-white Mississippi Medicaid Commission in 1976. Under the rule, each Medicaid patient would have to pay the first 50 cents of the price of each prescription. The commission justified the policy on the ground that it would save the state money by discouraging overutilization of drugs. 

Dr. Aaron Shirley, director of the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center and one of Jackson's best-known black community leaders, took the lead in opposing the co-payment rule. He pointed out that as a direct result of the policy many poor and elderly patients on fixed incomes would suffer, and some could die, particularly those who need to take a number of prescription drugs every day. His letter to the state Medicaid director said, "Only a motivational force tainted with genocide would place the most extreme barriers to obtaining proper medication on the elderly and the poor." 

The commission ignored these arguments, and the policy went into effect. Shirley and Charles Evers, then mayor of Fayette, issued a call for action against the co-payments. Rims Barber of the Children's Defense Fund joined in, and Sandifer activated a telephone tree to reach Panthers and their supporters. Meetings sprang up across the state after Evers called for demonstrations. The Panthers responded to Evers's call, mobilizing people in wheelchairs and the elderly to get to the demonstrations. The first was held at the Medicaid Commission office, followed by a wheelchair protest at the legislature. Still, neither body would take action to rescind the rule. 

When another demonstration — which included the Panthers among many others — was held at the capitol in October 1976, the 300 protestors said they wouldn't leave until the governor met with them. Finally Governor Finch came and listened to the grievances of the protestors as they gathered in the basement around the statue of the late governor and senator Theodore Bilbo, one of Mississippi's most notorious segregationists. Finch promised to support their cause, but it took another year of struggle before the Medicaid Commission finally backed down. The co-payment requirement was rescinded effective January 1, 1978. 

"Once you take on a problem," Sandifer maintains, "you must not give up. Persistence is the key." It's just as important, he stresses, "to involve all concerned individuals and groups and to make sure that decision-making is democratic. I never did any of it alone. There were always people supporting me and it was the known and the unknown who gave me the strength." 

Another key to Sandifer's success and that of the Gray Panthers is his ability to motivate people. Nellie Bass, 79, a retired postmistress, has been working with the Gray Panthers for over a decade. "Eddie was responsible for getting me involved," she says. She travels with him to meetings in other cities and sometimes minds the office phone while he delivers butter and cheese to elderly recipients who can't get to the commodity distribution centers. She was on the Mississippi planning committee for the 1981 White House Conference on Aging. "I'm also on the [Area Agency on Aging] advisory committee for the welfare department. That's a result of my Gray Panthers involvement," she says. "We make recommendations to the governor concerning the role of advocacy groups, the need for meals for senior citizens, things like that." 

In 1978 Mildred Patterson was working for the League of Women Voters in an office opposite the Gray Panthers'. "I transferred jobs; Eddie was doing work I preferred, work that was more important to me," she said. "From the humanitarian side, there's no comparison. Eddie and I learned a lot together, about laws pertaining to the elderly, about Social Security, things like that. I also learned a lot of things from him I could apply to my own life. Eddie is the most forgiving person I ever met. I have heard people say the meanest things about him, and he'll turn around and help them when they're in need. I wish they would look at the good he is doing, not at his lifestyle." 

Nellie Bass agrees: "His sexual preference is nobody's business but his." What is important, she says, is his devotion to the needs of others, and not just the elderly. "The Gray Panthers encompasses young and middle-aged too, people of all races and ages," she explains. 

Dedicated providers effectively address people's immediate, urgent needs. Idealists bring organizing skills and spirit. Sandifer, as both provider and idealist, possesses the combination of professional knowledge and skills, organizing experience, and social vision that is necessary to bring about progressive social change. 

The Gray Panthers' persistence and well-executed advocacy have impressed local public officials. Today the people responsible for administering aid to the elderly often seek out the advice and support of the Gray Panthers and Eddie Sandifer. Among those are Jackson's mayor Dale Danks, a Democrat: "I think Mr. Sandifer is very sensitive to the needs of the elderly in our community. It doesn't have to be a major problem that involves the elderly for Mr. Sandifer to be concerned. He quite often calls regarding specific cases where he feels we might assist him in his efforts to help the elderly." Danks also supports Sandifer's advocacy role at city revenue and block grant hearings. 

Republican City Commissioner George Porter has primary responsibility on issues affecting Jackson's elderly. His administrative assistant, Melba McAfee, when asked to rate Sandifer's work, replied, "If you're going to rate him on a scale of one to ten, it would probably be a ten-plus." McAfee said her phone rang incessantly in 1984 when the city was considering a proposal to fund some Gray Panthers programs of assistance to the elderly. Callers would say, she recalls, "'If Mr. Sandifer doesn't come by my house and bring my check or pick up my cheese or if he doesn't take me to the doctor, I won't have anybody else to do this for me.'" 

The funding proposal for temporary emergency assistance to the elderly passed, but the available resources never met the need, and the grant ran out after three months. The Panthers were told to apply for additional funding under revenue sharing, which they did, but the request was turned down. During a recent interview at Gray Panthers' headquarters, there was no heat in Sandifer's office, only two chairs, an antique typewriter, and a nearly bare supply cupboard. A grant from the Area Agency on Aging provides $640 per month, which, except for some small donations, is all the money the Panthers have for Sandifer's salary, office rent, and all expenses, including the Panthers' work as part of a national campaign on nursing home reform (seep. 116). 


Among the many controversies surrounding Eddie Sandifer is his belief in the inevitability of armed struggle, which he has discussed during many interviews, including one with Studs Terkel. Terkel included a vignette on Sandifer in his American Dreams Lost and Found, changing Sandifer's name to "Charlie Dellakamp." His comments on armed struggle, Sandifer laments, are always edited out. Sandifer is also an active member of the Workers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist organization formed in the 1950s and known for its militance. 

The United States, in Sandifer's view, is the main source of oppression in today's world: "Our country has a history of upholding dictatorships of the most violent kind. And if you're talking about terrorists, nothing could be more terroristic than Botha in South Africa, Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines. Those are some of the most barbaric terrorists I can think of offhand. Yet the U.S. government supports them." He believes that only a mass political movement that involves all exploited and oppressed people fighting together can put a stop to suffering on an enormous scale. 

Sandifer is outraged that billions of dollars are added annually to the Pentagon budget while social programs are slashed. As part of a 1985 press conference he said: 


We oppose any cuts in services and/or programs. We do support cuts in waste, such as the high price of retirement of presidents and members of Congress and any others who are being paid their weight in gold each year from tax dollars. We are appalled at a government that is willing to spend excessive amounts to support the military-industrial complex, while adding to human misery at the same time. Human suffering and misery at home and abroad. The present leaders of this nation place profits to stock holders who have invested in the military-industrial complex over the needs of our elderly, handicapped, and all poor people. 


Many of the elders Sandifer works with don't agree with all his political opinions, but they do admire and respect him. His arrival to deliver cheese and other surplus commodities to an elderly client often sparks an argument over the policies of the Reagan administration. Paradoxically, a lot of people who love Sandifer love Reagan, too, and voted for him. 

It's a frustration for Sandifer, but he's confident that eventually most elderly people, no matter how conservative, will understand the connection between their own suffering and the policies promulgated in Washington. After all, he says, many more people agree with him now than did 40 years ago when he was a young activist in McComb. And at age 55 he's got a lot of good years left.