Bakari Sellers on a life shaped by the rural South's civil rights movement
Born in 1984, former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers was raised in rural Denmark, South Carolina, to a family deeply involved in the civil rights movement. His father, educator Cleveland Sellers, was an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was incarcerated on specious charges for which he was later pardoned following the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina State University in 1968. State troopers shot into a crowd of students from the historically black school who were protesting segregation, killing three young black men and injuring dozens more, including Cleveland Sellers.
After attending local public schools, Bakari Sellers went on to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he got involved in politics and served as student body president. He worked for U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, and at age 22 he became the youngest state legislator in South Carolina history and the youngest elected African-American official in the country. Sellers went on to serve on President Barack Obama's South Carolina steering committee during the 2008 election and was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of his state in 2014, losing to Republican Henry McMaster, now governor. He is currently a trial lawyer in South Carolina and a CNN political analyst.
Sellers' new book, "My Vanishing Country," out May 19, is a memoir of his childhood in rural South Carolina and his education from movement leaders including Julian Bond, co-founder of the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of Facing South. In it he explores how two high-profile incidents of racial violence — the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968 and the Charleston Massacre of 2015 — have impacted his life and his work.
Facing South spoke with Sellers about his book and political organizing in the black rural South. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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You frame this memoir around your life growing up in the black rural South, and around movements for justice — why is it such an important story to tell right now?
When you're writing, it's very difficult to determine what will be happening in the world when your book comes out, so it's a great deal of coincidence and irony that my book comes out during the height of this pandemic. This pandemic has actually ripped the Band-Aid off of many issues we have in this country dealing with race. My book puts forward some difficult questions, and it puts forth difficult questions through my lens as a child of the civil rights movement.
People don't think about some of the biggest movements for justice in this country coming from the rural South. As you write in the book, "The spirit by which we have fought to gain those not-so-intangible ideals, such as freedom and justice, have all emerged from country folk." Why is that history important to remember, and why do you think it's too often left out of the narrative?
There is this stereotype of anti-intellectualism in the South, and there is a stereotype that we're backwoods bumbling idiots. I wanted to reclaim that discussion and let people know that black cultural liberation ideology emerged from the South, it emerged from Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia. The country has made us believe that the only black heroes we should know about are Martin, Malcolm, and Rosa. One of the things that I put in the book is something that was an integral part of my upbringing: My dad always taught me that heroes walk among us. I want people to know other names like Marion Barry and Julian Bond. I wanted them to know Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, Delano Middleton [the teens killed in the Orangeburg Massacre] — the names that I grew up with, the names that are the shoulders that I stand on.
The framing events of your book are the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968 and the Charleston Massacre of 2015. How have those two incidents shaped your understanding of both the country and of the South?
I'm angrier about Orangeburg than my father is, because I see the pain, and I see the struggle, and I see that my mother's and father's eyes don't pop like they once did. I see that they carry around the burdens for so many generations. It's tough growing up like that and seeing that pain, and then to live through Charleston. But anger is not sin. And so I keep pushing because I want my children to grow up in an America where they no longer exist with that type of hate and vitriol, and they don't have to live angry like their father.
Regardless of the shit that our country throws at us, I still believe in the decency in the heart of many Southerners.
How do you think the work of civil rights and the work of justice has changed from your father's generation to your generation?
I think that the goal has changed. Integration, at one point, was the goal. But power is still a goal that has not been ascertained. And by power — I don't mean to scare white folk, but I'm talking about economic power, political power, power to create an influence and change within your own communities. I think that is still the goal. It is still the same goal that Stokely Carmichael shouted out in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Does that work look different in a rural context than it does in an urban context? Maybe not the goal itself, but the methods by which you're organizing?
Whenever you're in rural America, it's more hand-in-hand, because the technological divide is real, the socio-economic divide is real, the educational gaps are real. And so you have to legit meet people where they are. Which is why, if you want to juxtapose it against campaigns, individuals like Bernie Sanders had such difficulty translating throughout the South. There was a familiarity and a trust around Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, because many times they had already had those hand-to-hand, meet-people-where-they-are moments, and individuals were just getting to know Bernie Sanders. That is the way that you create that change in the South. It's being in the churches, at the high school football games, sitting in people's living rooms, drinking their sweet tea and lemonade. It's doing those things.
Why do you think that's been such a hard thing for some politicians to grasp, that that's what you need to do to reach rural voters and rural black voters?
First of all, many people believe that rural means white — when they say "rural voters" they think of Midwestern voters, they don't think about black Southern voters. They also think that there is some lack of sophistication, that most rural voters aren't articulate, but that's just not the case. They skip steps, and you can't skip steps when it comes to soliciting black voters in the South; they are very sophisticated voters who've seen so many things, and lived through so many things. Understanding that and speaking from a common bind would be integral in trying to get them to vote for you — and people just haven't been able to do that.
What kind of steps would you like to see politicians take?
Well, I'd like to see year-round sustained efforts. People parachute in the black community in August and say "Vote for me!" And that's just not the way it works. There are some very serious gaps and concerns that are real. I mean, I talk about the town that I grew up in — in 2010 we lost our hospital. Now the water is not clean. You're along the Corridor of Shame [a region of notoriously poor schools], you live in a food desert. There are real issues; we don't need you to breeze through and breeze in during election season. These are sustained efforts. You have to plow the soil and cultivate the ground.
Earlier, you mentioned that a lot of people, and I think especially in the national punditry, hear "rural" and they think "white." What does that leave out of the conversation?
Black folk in this country built this country, and they built it for free. Many of these families, these generations who built the South, many of us are still here. And we don't want a handout, we just want an opportunity. We want an opportunity to succeed, an opportunity to breathe fresh air and drink clean water, to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. We want an opportunity to live. We want an opportunity to realize our basic humanity. What I mean by humanity is simply this: They looked at Ahmaud Arbery as less than human, the same way they looked at Tamir Rice, the same way they looked at Eric Brown, the same way they looked at Walter Scott — as less than human. Black folk, particularly black men in this country, do not get the benefit of their humanity, and throughout the South in particular, we see that. And that is what we fight for.
You talk at the end of the book about the lack of resources in rural Southern counties in the Black Belt, and especially about health care. Talk about your family's experience with the health care system and what it means to a community to not have access to quality health care.
My mom had leukemia, and having leukemia in Denmark, South Carolina, is tough because there was no hospital close by. My mom was carrying groceries in, and doing something that I think is a cardinal sin for older folks — she was carrying grocery bags with both hands, and she tripped up the steps and fell and broke her fall with her face. She went to the neighbors, and the neighbors called us. I'm a lawyer, my sister's a doctor, my brother's a minister, and so we were able to get somebody to go over there and get our mom, get her to the hospital from where she was sitting on the steps, bloody. We had those resources in our family to do that. Every family doesn't have that, is not able to drive their mother or father who falls, suffering from leukemia, 30 miles to the nearest hospital.
My second experience with the broken health care system was my wife giving birth to our twins. It doesn't matter your socioeconomic level, it doesn't matter if you're middle class like I am, or upper class like Serena Williams: If you're a black woman, then you still may die going through childbirth because your voice often is not heard, listened to. We had all black doctors, which is the reason that my wife is alive today.
Third, my daughter had a liver transplant last year, and we had to wait 93 days on a liver transplant list. Every day, my daughter was dying. And looking at a child that was just born, who's dying every single day in front of your eyes, is the most difficult experience anybody will ever have to go through.
So I've seen a lack of health care, I've seen implicit biases in our health care, and I've just seen when you're in the system and it's broken. The overarching theme with all of that though is I still believe in what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." My brother and sister were there for my mom when she fell, my doctors were there for my wife when she was bleeding out and almost dead, and Duke University was special in taking care of my daughter and getting her a transplant. I still believe in good people, and the good people throughout the South in particular are why I wrote this book — because regardless of the shit that our country throws at us, I still believe in the decency in the heart of many Southerners.
Julian Bond is someone that you talk about throughout the book as a mentor and almost a family member. How did his legacy, his mentorship, and those of the other civil rights leaders that you grew up around, shape the way that you think about your work now?
I always tell people, I'd rather be Julian Bond than Barack Obama. And that's not a slight on Barack. I love Barack Obama, honestly, but it's that essence of emerging from that struggle that's important. We all have our struggles, and your struggle may not be the same as mine. But right now, during this during this time where Donald Trump is president, and it feels as if our civil liberties and rights are being eroded daily, we have to do everything we can possibly do to ensure that people understand how far we've come in this country. One of my good friends [in the South Carolina state legislature] who I worked with on a daily basis, whose district literally overlapped with mine, was Clementa Pinckney. Clem was murdered in his church in 2015. My father was 70 and I was 30, and we were having many of the same shared experiences. And that is trauma. We should have made it further than that with all the progress we've made. And we just have not.
What do you think it will take to change systems that don't work for so many people? You talk about the education system in the book, you talk about the health care system, and the roadblocks that it seems many of these systems have set up.
First of all, democracy is participatory. And you can't stay on the sideline. Whether or not you're running for office, or whether or not you're challenging the status quo, we have to hear your voice. It's hard now because there's so much going on, but we need everybody to get involved and participate in the process. Go to city council meetings, run for office, work for campaigns. Don't be selfish in your struggle though. And what I mean by that is, look, you're not going to find a bigger proponent for women's rights than Bakari Sellers. When I'm out there marching for women's rights, I do it with my whole heart, all in. But when Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down and I'm marching for him, I expect white women to be marching with me as well. We all have to be in this together.
You've chosen to do a lot of your work through electoral politics and national commentary. Why were those the things that called to you?
It's the Julian Bond, it's the Marion Barry — it's watching them chart their paths in their lives. Working for Jim Clyburn and working for Shirley Franklin. My father was the field director for Jesse Jackson [in his 1988 presidential run] — you know, it's just those experiences that I had. My parents always told us growing up that all we had to do was be a change agent, and I chose politics as a way to be that change agent.
Olivia Paschal is the archives editor with Facing South and a doctoral student in history at the University of Virginia. She was a staff reporter with Facing South for two years and spearheaded Poultry and Pandemic, Facing South's year-long investigation into conditions for Southern poultry workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, Southerly, Scalawag, the Arkansas Times, and Civil Eats, among other publications.