First black woman to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the League of California Cities
For the first time in history, a black woman, Sedalia Sanders, has been honored by the Council of Past Presidents of the League of California Cities with its 2022 Past Presidents Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sanders has had a lifetime of firsts, pushing the boundaries of local politics. As former president of the California League of Cities, elected in 1995, she received the President’s Council’s highest honor at the opening of the organization’s three-day conference last Wednesday at the Long Beach Convention Center. .
On stage were some of the past winners, but no African Americans. Cheryl Viegas Walker, also a former league president, presented the award.
“Today we recognize a true champion of local government,” Viegas Walker said, his voice wavering. “One of my dearest friends and mentors who has not only been a champion of local government, but also a champion of quality of life issues, making our cities better places to live, work to raise our families.”
Sanders delivered his acceptance speech with a combination of wit and humor. Thanking the public for coming, she asked those who didn’t come to see her to “refrain from saying so”. Her speech recalled the events of the last 80 years of her life and how they helped make her “part of the greatest generation”.
Sanders described her accomplishments as those of a “little city girl” from a “rural community” acknowledging the difficult task of governing, especially with the recent pandemic. She stressed the importance of diverse and equitable representation in government.
“So those who look like me, i.e. of the same sex, those who may look like me, i.e. the same ethnicity, and those who may look like me, because you are my age or more,” Sanders said, “know that if you live long enough, work hard enough, anything can be accomplished.
In a reflective moment behind the scenes, Sanders recalled how his political career began. The Mayor of El Centro wanted her to serve on the El Centro Community Hospital Board of Trustees in 1982, but he warned her that she should be appointed to the position.
“It’s 20 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington,” Sanders said. “He was killed in ’63 and people were still worried about whether we (African Americans) had the knowledge and the understanding or the skill and the education to do it.”
But she persisted. Sanders said she won them over with her willingness to work hard and her tenacity. She went on to win and defend a seat as alderman and then mayor of El Centro in Southern California from 1984 to 1999.
Leaders who inspired Sanders at the time included former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. She remembers meeting him and being asked how she could have done it. She answered. “it wasn’t easy”, to which Bradley replied, “tell me about it.”
Bradley was the first African American to win the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sanders has achieved a long list of accomplishments and received multiple awards in 30 years in California politics. She was mayor of El Centro, president of the League of California Cities, two-year member of the board of the National League of Cities, Rural Competitiveness Task Force member appointed by Governor Pete Wilson and Vice Chair of the Rural Development Council.
According to Sanders, hard work and faith got him through some of the most contentious parts of his political career. Now in her eighties, she hasn’t finished yet. She was reappointed by Governor Newsom to the executive committee of the California Commission on Aging Commission, where she has served since 2016.
For Sanders, the message is clear: No one should be told they’re not as good as someone else. Everyone should be able to participate in the governance process.
“What I hope is that the presentation I made today in my acceptance speech will inspire someone to see that they can do it.”