Watch Now: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Fishing Friendship
Now available to view online, Mighty Waters tells the story of a mighty bond between the civil rights icon and Bimini guide Ansil Saunders
photo: Courtesy of Simms
In the skiff, on a creek that winds through the vast mangroves that rim the bonefish flats of Bimini, Martin Luther King Jr. would savor the quiet. With the motor off and the shadows of birds coursing over the water, “he would just put his hand under his chin,” recalls fishing guide and boatbuilder Ansil Saunders, in an interview with the filmmaker Shannon Vandivier, “and you could see he was writing something in his head.”
There were several somethings, actually, penned across half a decade in that unassuming flats skiff. In the boat, King worked on his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Four years later, he was back in Bimini, and back in Saunders’ skiff, where he wrote part of his famed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech just a few days before his assassination in Memphis. At the height of his very public civil rights crusade, King traveled to the Bimini flats not so much for the thrill of casting to bonefish and tarpon, but for their privacy and serenity. And for one of the most fascinating fishing friendships ever known.
Now, a film detailing the relationship between King and Saunders is making its online debut to help celebrate Black History Month. Mighty Waters, sponsored by Simms Fishing, Costa Del Mar, and the American Museum of Fly Fishing, opened on the 2021 Fly Fishing Film Tour and traveled to various film festivals—among them Mountainfilm and Washington’s Wasatch Mountain Film Festival, where it won the event’s Social Awareness Award. But its premiere to the broader public will commence on Tuesday, February 1. Its soulful retelling of how King inspired Saunders—and vice-versa—is riveting.
Saunders, now 89, is one of the Caribbean’s most accomplished watermen. He’s built nearly three dozen handcrafted wooden flats skiffs and has guided clients from Richard Nixon to Joe Namath. In 1971 he led a client to a sixteen-pound bonefish that still stands as the International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record.
He met King through an introduction by King’s friend Adam Clayton Powell, a pastor, congressman, and civil rights activist in Harlem who visited Bimini frequently. By the time Powell introduced the two, Saunders was already known for his activism on the island. When he was twenty-one years old, Saunders sat down for lunch at the famed Bimini Big Game Club, where Black people weren’t allowed to dine. He wasn’t served, and he returned in protest for forty more days, between the hours of noon and one, leaving hungry, he says, to guide for the rest of the afternoon. One day the club hosted officials from Nassau, and Saunders rallied friends with a promise of a free dinner if they would join him in his sit-down. On that day they were served—and Black people have been welcomed at the Bimini Big Game Club ever since.
The Austin, Texas–based Vandivier has long used his work as a lens for advocacy and education. In 2017 he helped start Fish for Change, a student volunteer program that pairs young anglers with conservation projects across the Caribbean and in Colorado. He founded his film production company, Cold Collaborative, in 2015, and actively seeks out stories that will help drive positive change.
To film Mighty Waters, Vandivier’s five-person team (and their fifteen hundred pounds of video equipment) spent six days on Bimini in December of 2020, just a month after the Bahamas opened its borders. The calm they found there was inspiring. “There were no tourists booze-cruising in their golf carts,” Vandivier says. “We were the only outsiders there, and we are grateful for the intimate experience that I think gave us the ability to engage more deeply with that community.”
The film deftly weaves together the separate, and then conjoined, stories of two men working in vastly different regions but with a single purpose—equality—in mind. “I had the privilege of fishing with Ansil one time,” says Simms Fishing’s John Frazier. “And what I’ve never forgotten is how his life story personifies the profound connections so many anglers feel to the places and the people they visit. Fishing connects many of us to far deeper purposes than just feeling a tug on the line. Ansil’s life, and this film, express that in a way that will resonate with people whether they fish or not.”
Mighty Waters can now be streamed through the American Museum of Fly Fishing, which is raising money to purchase Ansil Saunders’ boat and other memorabilia and to provide funding for a screening of the film for Saunders’ Bimini community. You can also watch it here:
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