The Trouble I’ve Seen: Robert Sanderman, Malcolm Wright and unexpected justice

Engraved on a rust-red steel column, atop a hill overlooking Montgomery, Alabama, is the name Malcolm Wright.

Wright was 49 years old when three white men beat him to death in Chickasaw County, Mississippi in 1949. After an altercation in which they claimed Wright failed to move his vehicle and clear the road, the three men killed the farmer with a tire iron, while Wright’s wife and children looked on from the vehicle.

Wright is just one of thousands of lynching victims memorialized at the Equal Justice institute’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the first national monument dedicated to remembering the Black men and women who were enslaved, lynched, or otherwise victimized by white supremacy between 1877 and 1950.

But Wright’s story might have been lost to history if it wasn’t for CRRJ’s restorative justice clinic and the tireless investigation of former student Robert Sanderman (NUSL ’14).

The beautiful thing was I was able to turn one line from a book into a 20-page report, find the relatives and allow Wright’s family to take back control of their family history.

Like Wright’s legacy, however, Sanderman’s legal career was far from certain.

Now a housing attorney for Queens Legal Services, Sanderman said he started off wanting to be an engineer and using science to help others.

After completing almost three years of a program at The City College New York (CCNY) he switched to political science.

Read more about Wright’s death on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

“When I switched, I never wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. But after taking an undergraduate constitutional law class with a professor who “spoke the language [he] was speaking, about using your skills to help people and help your community,” Sanderman said he warmed to the idea.

“I definitely did not want to be a lawyer, but I love Black history and I idolize Thurgood Marshall, Bob Moses and other iconic civil rights leaders,” he said.

Before graduating with a BA in political science in 2011, Sanderman participated in the inaugural Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom Honors Program at CCNY in 2009. A member of the first cohort of Skadden, Arps Scholars enrolled in the intensive two-year program, Sanderman also gained experience working with disadvantaged and homeless communities. He interned at the National Homelessness Law Center, and LIFT, a national nonprofit helping families break the cycle of poverty, both in Washington DC.

Awarded a scholarship, Sanderman joined Northeastern Law’s JD program in 2011. What sold Northeastern for him, he said, was meeting members of the Black Law Student Association and CRRJ Director Professor Burnham, while touring the Boston campus. “Meeting Professor Burnham and learning about her incredible work — she is a living legend, a trailblazer, a civil rights icon — that sold it for me,” he said. “It was a beautiful invitation to Northeastern.”

During his second year Sanderman began working in CRRJ’s clinic, researching and investigating cases of lethal anti-Black violence in the Jim Crow South.

Initially, he found his search futile. “I felt like I was failing that class because I couldn’t get any information on my case. Other students were finding information, and I couldn’t get any leads,” said Sanderman.

That changed when he located a cousin, who led him to Wright’s surviving children.

“The grandkids learnt the story through me,” he said. “I’ll never forget handing over my binders of research. To this day, I still feel like that was one of the most important things I’ve done in my life.”

After multiple telephone calls, including a long-distance conversation with a descendant in Israel, Sanderman said the family eventually came “to trust a random stranger out of Boston.”

While his goal was to host a commemorative event and get a marker installed in Chickasaw County, Sanderman said he encountered pushback “from the mayor and other town officials who believed that this history should stay buried.”

The perpetrators, he said, still lived in the community where Wright’s murder took place and were prominent business owners.

Robert Sanderman (center) with Professor Burnham (right) during commencement week in 2013.

“I felt like I had failed because I’d found the information and created the historical record, but I wasn’t able to get a marker,” said Sanderman.

He continued working on the case after the clinic concluded at the end of the 2012 spring semester, and in December of that year a documentary film, titled “The Trouble I’ve Seen” premiered. It features Wright’s case and is narrated by Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP.

Wright’s family were flown to Boston for the screening, organized at Northeastern in 2013. Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and Bob Moses were all in attendance.

Sometimes you have one way of thinking what success looks like but this way, this form of success, was better because the victim was memorialized in the film and the relatives got to tell their story.

Sanderman with descendants of Malcolm Wright, at the film premiere of "The Trouble I've Seen." Courtesy of Sanderman.
Descendants of Malcolm Wright, at the film premiere of "The Trouble I've Seen" in 2013. Courtesy of Sanderman.

Having returned to Queens, where he was born and raised, Sanderman said he has achieved a lifelong ambition and fulfilled the promise he made himself upon entering law school. “I came back to my community,” he said, “to help people who look like me in my own community.”

In 2015, Sanderman was the lead attorney on a federal lawsuit on behalf of a client locked out of her home, in accordance with New York City Housing Authority’s Public Nuisance Abatement Laws. He successfully argued these laws unjustly impacted Black and Brown residents.

Testifying before New York City Council in 2016, he worked with New York Daily News journalist Sarah Ryley, who, in partnership with ProPublica, uncovered the true extent of discrimination within the Housing Authority system, receiving a Pulitzer prize for her coverage of Sanderman’s case. As a result of litigation and media pressure, both led by Sanderman, New York City Council amended abatement laws in 2017, implementing policies designed to remediate and monitor some of the legislation’s discriminatory impacts on communities of color.

“When all is said and done, all of that happened because a client trusted me,” said Sanderman. “They could have taken an easier route, they were awarded a substantial amount of money, but they decided to stay and fight on so that these laws could not be used on other people in similar situations.”

Trust-building, trauma-informed interview skills, elevating his clients’ voices; these are all characteristic elements of his current practice that he attributes to his time spent at CRRJ.

“Success isn’t just about winning a case,” said Sanderman. “I do everything I can outside of the courtroom, building trust, talking with journalists, creating a historical record. I try to keep non-legal, restorative justice strategies in mind.”

A second steel column lies beside the exit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. One of 800 strewn across the 6-acre site, this one is for Chickasaw County officials, free for them to collect, if, at some point, they wish to confront their local history and Wright’s death, by creating a marker honoring the family-man and his descendants’ suffering.

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