NEW YORK — Civil rights leaders are often forced to make great sacrifices for the sake of their cause. They dedicate their time and energy to the movement, but some go above and beyond the call of duty. Some risk jail time. Some even risk their lives and die as martyrs.
Eddie Sandifer found a unique way to support his cause: he became a jewelry store thief.
From an early age, Sandifer has been willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of helping others. In 1955, Sandifer started working at a small nursing home in Jackson, Mississippi. The pay was marginal, but it didn’t matter to him. After all, he was doing what he loved: helping others.
He continued that passion of his in New York where he began working with the NAACP, the Mattachine Society — which promotes gay rights — and a variety of other grass-roots civil rights campaigns.
Sandifer noticed that one of the things they all had in common was a lack of funding. His salary from the nursing home was hardly enough to keep himself afloat, much less to support the civil rights movement.
But that wasn’t enough to deter Sandifer, who was willing to go to any length to advance civil rights. One day, he noticed that jewelry stores left their valuables in their display cases after closing time. Sandifer got an idea, but first he wanted to have a foolproof plan.
He spent time learning exactly how much time it would take for the police to arrive on the scene, and exactly how long it would take the getaway driver to escape.
After two minutes of loud, reckless ransacking, Sandifer hopped back in the car and escaped across the railroad tracks right before the train came across. The train blocked the road as the police tried to pursue.
Sandifer executed similarly well-planned heists on six jewelry stores across the South before he was eventually caught trying to sell the stolen goods.
He ended up serving 16 months in jail, but all the proceeds from his robberies went towards supporting the civil rights movement.
After he got out of prison, Sandifer’s commitment was renewed. He kept working at the nursing home, but he was angered by the mistreatment of the elderly there so he founded the Jackson branch of the Gray Panthers to protect the elderly from callous nursing home corporate leaders.
Sandifer’s next cause was fighting the AIDS epidemic in rural Mississippi. He started the Mississippi Gay Alliance, the Sandifer House to care for AIDS and HIV patients, and when the funding for that ran out, he became involved with the Southern AIDS Commission.
Alonzo Dukes, who now leads the commission, said that, “When Eddie first started working for me, he told me he would give me ten years before he retired. Now it’s been twenty and he still hasn’t retired.”
“I’m going to be working until I’m gone,” Sandifer said.
Sandifer, who is now 84, still works at the commission helping HIV patients. He works as a volunteer even though he continues to live in poverty.
Eddie Sandifer is one of those rare individuals who has sacrificed — and will continue to sacrifice — everything he owns for the sake of helping others.
He was unfazed at the prospect of being a gay rights leader in the 1950s South, he was unworried about the possibility of serving jail time to fund his movements and he still doesn’t mind living in poverty, just so long as he can help those most in need.
– Sam Hillestad