In the battle over the greatest civil rights challenges of our time, Bakari Sellers has taken up arms against, what he calls, a “war on oppression.”
By doing so, the licensed attorney for Strom Law Firm in Columbia, SC, and former South Carolina State Representative is following in the footsteps of his civil right activist father, Cleveland, who helped lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the sixties and was jailed after the 1968 Orangeburg massacre.
Born in 1984, Sellers said growing up in South Carolina meant leaning on the spiritual nourishment of the Black church in order to escape the discomfort of the Confederate flag. For him, being southern also involved having a closeness to the quest for social justice. He described it as the ability to “go to your nearest corner” and find someone involved in the cause – something he experienced firsthand courtesy of his parents. He called his upbringing “interesting,” spoke of it with pride, and said he hopes to share it with a son one day.
“My mother and father provided me with the some of the most amazing experiences being around some of the greatest heroes and she-roes this country has ever seen,” Sellers said. “[Like Black Panther] Kathleen Cleaver…being able to reach out and touch [SNCC member and former NAACP head] Julian Bond and [two-time D.C. Mayor] Marion Barry.”
According to Sellers, navigating through today’s discordant political state with opponents requires casting aside feelings of hate and fear, being “willing to come out of our silos,” and engaging people who “do not look like us…do not think like us” for different opinions.
He referenced a conversation he had with CNN Political Commentator Jeffrey Lord on Anderson Cooper’s 360 program, where Lord said, “Think of President [Donald] Trump as the Martin Luther King of healthcare.” Lord went on to explain he meant Trump’s desire to withhold federal funding for healthcare payments was a “political crisis” to force discourse on replacing the Affordable Care Act – similar to King’s nonviolent acts to provoke political action. Sellers disagreed, calling it “an affront to Dr. King’s legacy,” and “further emblematic of a culture of anti-intellectualism and ignorance.”
“I might not have been able to change Jeffrey’s mind, per se, or change his opinions,” Sellers said, “but I do think there are viewers out there who understand we can have a discussion if our hearts are in the right place.”
Some civil rights issues at the nation’s forefront, according to Sellers, include the drinking water disaster in Flint, Michigan, a “fundamentally broken” criminal justice system, educational system that punishes students of color in low-income areas, and lack of access for African-Americans to quality healthcare.
“What we understand is that racism is still here, and simply because it doesn’t say ‘Negro’ or ‘Colored’ on a water fountain doesn’t mean racism went away. People are having open conversations about the fact that America’s original sin was slavery and the country was built on the backs of slaves. Once we’re able to understand that, we can move on and have better conversations about how our systems are fundamentally broken.”
Sellers claimed there is no one struggle. “This is a multifaceted war we’re facing. [We can change things] by destroying it from within. I think it’s going to take a lot of strength that we summon from above and within. We’re going to have to pack our patience because this is going to be a long journey. It’s going to take us being inclusive of all voices.”
Those voices include the millennial generation and post-millennials, whom Sellers described as “unafraid of getting involved,” and “[determined] to be heard, whether you want to hear it or not.” The way to reach the youth and keep them engaged, he said, has to do with listening and talking.
“Young people understand that change doesn’t happen overnight,” he added, “but [there is] a level of frustration when many of the adversaries we see toward our goal are adversaries who look like us or individuals who don’t want to let the torch go. That’s the most frustrating part. I don’t know what victory [over civil issues] looks like, but I hope to see it in my lifetime.”
For the future, Sellers said he is interested in elected office and will seek it when or if the opportunity presents itself, but he hopes he is currently reaching people through his civic and political platform. His exposure on CNN has enlarged his reach, but at the end of the day, his goal of coming home to his wife and daughter and that they have everything they need – including “breathing a breath of freedom” when they walk outside of his home.