Bakari Sellers made history in 2006 when, at just 22 years old, he defeated a 26-year incumbent State Representative to become the youngest member of the South Carolina state legislature and the youngest African American elected official in the nation.
Sellers is widely considered to be one of the key voices – not only within the Democratic Party – but of his generation. No matter whether he’s in a room with young people or on CNN giving commentary, he will speak truth to power. This, as he states, “country boy from a city that has three stop lights and a blinking light” has given us a blue print on how we all can uplift our communities through truth, perseverance, and clarity of vision.
Charles Clark: Mr. Sellers, I start all of my interviews off with just saying, “Thank you.” I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to me. I really appreciate it, sir.
Bakari Sellers: Well, I’m thankful for the opportunity. I’m just a country boy from a city that has three stop lights and a blinking light, so for me, this is an amazing opportunity.
CC: Thank you, sir. This is our 8th anniversary and I have started all of my interviews with the same exact question: Who is Bakari Sellers?
BS: Ah, Bakari Sellers is someone who wants to be remembered for their contributions to the world he inherited. I’m someone who, first and foremost, wants to make my mother and father proud; but, even more, I know the shoulders upon which I stand, and so, I do my very best to give back with all my being, every single day.
CC: How would you describe growing up in the South – South Carolina – and how does it inform your social, political and your spiritual beliefs and actions even today?
BS: Well, that’s a good question, because being from the South, we don’t have to read about civil rights in a history book. In fact, you just have to go to your nearest corner and you have someone who marched or sat-in so that we could have the opportunities that we have today. Church was always a big part of my life; not just as a structural part – you go to Bible studies on Wednesdays and you go to service on Sundays – but early on in my life, a part in the quest for social justice because the Church was the place where your mayor went with you, city council people went with you and so it became a meeting place where you could talk about an agenda to move the community forward. But, in the South, you understand what it means to be broken, too, because every day you work under the auspices of the confederate flag. And so, you need that type of spiritual re-nourishment. The last thing that I will say about the South, which is very interesting, is that we do politics very well in the Black church in the South. We take our position in our community with great respect and understand that the church is a seminal part of being able to move forward. I went to over 55 churches when I won my first race in 2006. I was just meeting people where they were.
CC: You talked about the confederate flag… I’m in Buffalo, NY and there is a house diagonally across the street from our church with a confederate flag… In Buffalo, NY, of all places… And I wanted to know, in this era of political discord, how can we engage people to say that offends me? You do it perfectly. You have a way of saying it, without being condescending, as some commentators are. You have a way of saying, “that offends me, and not only am I going to tell that it offends me; I’m going to tell you how that offends me”… Is it possible that we can continue to have that conversation without people getting “in their feelings”?
BS: So, yes, but it requires a few things: One is, you can’t be consumed by hate and you can’t be consumed by fear. Those are the first, and that’s essential. But more importantly, we have to be willing to come out of our silos. One of the things that we’ve done – and it’s not just the Black community, but our country as a whole because of social media and other things – is we’ve just retreated to our silos. And if somebody’s opinion is different from ours or someone’s views don’t reinforce what we already believe, then we don’t have any use for them. And that’s a sad commentary. So, what I attempt to do is be sure to engage people who don’t look like us, who don’t think like us, and have those uncomfortable conversations. That conversation I had with Jeffrey was not comfortable: It was not comfortable for Jeffrey; it wasn’t comfortable for me; and it was probably uncomfortable for those watching. But, it was a healthy discussion that we had because although I may not have been able to educate Jeffrey, per se, or change his opinion, I do think there are viewers out there who understand that we can have a discussion if our heart’s in the right place – about our past, but more importantly, how we move forward.
CC: For the people who will be reading this [interview], tell me about your father.
BS: Well, for me, it’s easy. My father’s a hero. You know, I don’t have to go to Marvel Comics to find my hero. My father nearly died February 8, 1968 [Orangeburg Massacre]. But that’s not just the end of his story or the beginning of his story. My father was, shall I say, toiling in the vineyards since he was 14 or 15 years old. He’s a part of the Emmet Till generation. He was a member of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. But even more so than that, my mother and father both provided me with some of the most amazing experiences… Being around some of the greatest heroes and she-roes this country has ever seen: Kathleen Cleaver; Learning about Fannie Lou Hamer; Learning about Ella Baker; Learning about Shirley Chisholm at a young age; Being able to reach out and touch Julian Bond and Marion Barry. It was an interesting upbringing, but one that I cherish and one that one day when I have a son, I’ll be able to share similar experiences with him.
CC: Do you believe that our young people today lack knowledge of history… how to actually plan a strategy? Do you think that their lack of history is hindering them [causing] a lack of strategy?
BS: Well, I think they’re learning. If you look back in the history books and you look at SNCC, which is a comparable group of young people who helped change the world and flip the Civil Rights Movement on its head, they had some flawed strategies, as well. They had to figure out what their strategy was going to be. The most amazing part about this generation is that we’re unafraid and our voices will be heard whether or not you want to listen.
CC: What do you see as the greatest civil rights challenge of our time?
BS: Um, I don’t think there’s a singular. I think the travesty is that we have environmental injustices like Flint; we have a criminal justice system which is fundamentally broken; with have an education system that punished many kids, especially kids of color because of the ZIP code they’re born into. We have kids, especially African Americans, who don’t have access to quality health care. So, there’s not a singular struggle. This is a multifaceted war that we’re facing. For me, I’m dedicating my life to a war on oppression.
CC: Wow. What can be done to change it?
BS: So, it has to be destroyed from within… And so, I think it’s going to take a lot of strength that we summon from above and within. We’re gonna have to pack our patience because this is going to be a long journey. It’s gonna take us being inclusive of all voices. And I don’t really know what victory looks like, to be honest with you. I haven’t seen it. I guess my goal is that I hope to see it in my lifetime.
CC: You were the youngest Representative elected in South Carolina. What is your next step? Have you taken electoral office – or running for electoral office – off your plate or is that something in the near future?
BS: Oh, it’s something in the future; I don’t know how near. I would hope that it’s near. You know, politics is something that once you get a taste of it, it’s really hard to let go. When I got elected at 21 years old, I told people that I had the coolest job of any 21-year old not named LeBron James. So, I’m gonna get back to it. I loved it. I got a chance to help people every single day. If the opportunity presents itself, I will jump on it. But right now, hopefully, I’m adding value to the movement from my platform. You always want to utilize your platform for the best.
CC: How do we fully engage young people in the process, though? Because I’ve noticed that after a protest, they get disheartened and they get disengaged.
BS: Well, I think it has to do with listening and talking. I think that young people understand that change doesn’t happen overnight. I think we understand that we have to pack our patience. But I also think that it’s a level of frustration when many of the adversaries that we seek towards our goal are adversaries who look like us, or individuals who don’t want to let that torch go. That’s the frustrating part. [Those] who get in the way… It’s not the fact that success is fleeting but it’s those that look like us that ain’t helping.
CC: When you gave up your seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives to run for Lt. Governor, did you face criticism that you were too ambitious or that it wasn’t your time yet? How did you deal with it? How did you respond?
BS: I mean, yeah… I faced criticism because I was young, I was Black, I was Democrat… I faced all of that. That type of criticism doesn’t faze me one bit. My hope is that every election that I run, I win. But I understand that that is not how politics works. But what I can tell you is that I left everything that I had out on the playing field. I think that because I ran, there are other people who got involved in the political process.
CC: How would you describe the state of race relations in America right now, today?
BS: I think that 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 that racism went away. People in our country are having open conversations about the fact that America’s original sin was slavery and this country was built on the backs of slaves. And once we can understand that, we are able to move forward and have better conversations about why are systems are fundamentally broken. Racism is real. It’s both covert and overt. The difference, though, is that I’m not sure it puts a hard, cement ceiling on our ability to achieve. It’s very, very difficult. Very difficult… But there are many before us who helped chip away at that so we don’t have a choice now but to be successful, regardless of the racism.
CC: Why is it, do you think, that others somehow always bring up Oprah, even LeBron James, Bob Johnson and others like those individuals when they try to say that there is no such thing as racism, as if before Oprah, there wasn’t a Madame CJ Walker?
BS: It’s kinda funny because people say, “Oh my god, you had a Black President so racism no longer exists.” And you’re like, what are you talking about? We still have Tamir Rice; we still have Flint, MI; we still have the corridor of shame [in SC]; these things are still very prevalent. Those are primarily very ignorant arguments that people make and, many times, we just have to push back and move on.
CC: Much was made of President Trump’s attempt to appeal to the Black Church during the campaign. And, recently, there was a fascinating dialogue on Meet the Press called Politics and the Pulpit. What do you make of the role that the church plays in politics? Or, more, their role in advancing the policies and positions that impact African Americans?
BS: I think the Black Church has let us down. I think the Black Church has a long way to go to live up to the history that we know to be the Black Church. Now, with that, it’s a challenge and it is seen as nothing more than that. We need the Black Church if we are going to get out of the doldrums of oppression. We need our ministers and deacons and lay leaders to be the pillars of the community, the rock upon which we stand. We need the men and women of the church to be the examples because they are the doctors and the lawyers and the teachers, dentists and postal workers that we can look up to… So, yeah, I’m disappointed. But I’m not just disappointed in the Black Church; I’m disappointed in Black elected officials; I’m disappointed in Black media… I’m disappointed in all of us because we have to do that much better.
CC: Yes, sir. Where do you see the likely pitfalls, particularly in light of Separation of Church and State?
BS: I see pitfalls when individuals do not understand what that means. When it leads to your church being wholly inactive… That’s when I see those pitfalls. That’s not something we see a whole lot of in the Black Church down South. We understand the Separation of Church and State, but if you are running for any office, you may not touch your feet in the pulpit, but you’d better come to that church, at least to meet some people and say some stuff. I think when churches close their doors to politics, that is the greatest pitfall we see.
CC: I have been following you since you first won your seat as a Representative for South Carolina… Your bid for Lt. Governor… CNN… The whole nine… What I admire most about you is that no matter what platform it is that you have risen to, your message – the basic core of who you are – has not changed. You cannot say that for everyone who has been given a platform. You have risen to a national profile with your work as a political commentator on CNN. How has that changed your approach to civic, political engagement?
BS: Oh, it makes me speak with more authority because I get a chance to speak to more people. But every day, I come home to a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter and that humbled me. But it also motivates me to make sure that I make sure that they have absolutely everything they need. That is not just economic or financial… But that means that spiritually and socially that they understand that when they walk outside, they can breathe a breath of freedom. So that is my goal and that hasn’t changed at all.
CC: Do you feel that there are higher standards for individuals like yourself because you are African Americans?
BS: Yeah, there are… They want me to be an angry Black man… They want us to fit into stereotypes but we don’t do that. That’s not who we are; that’s why we have this platform. Yeah, there are greater expectations. And if there aren’t greater expectations, then you need to place them on yourself and carry yourself as such.
CC: Over the next few years, our goal is to increase literacy in the African American community; particularly with African American males. What book have you read lately that has captured your attention?
BS: Um… Black Privilege by Charlamagne tha God.
CC: Oh, really? I just saw some reviews for that… Why that particular book?
BS: Because I know Charlamagne… I know from where he came… We’re both from very small towns in South Carolina. We’ve both risen to some national prominence; his star, of course, is a lot brighter than mine… But, he’s very spiritual. He has an amazing heart and you can see his heart in his writing. I like that and I like Marc Lamont Hill’s Nobody.
CC: So do I. If you were writing a book right now, what would the topic be?
BS: I am writing one right now. I don’t know what the title of it is… [Chuckles]
CC: What will your book be about?
BS: I want to talk about the politics of race that’s not a Cornell West or Tavis Smiley but something real that people can touch. Talking about the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968… Talking about the Charleston Massacre… Things that both touched my life and kinda bookend it… And talk about the politics of race in this new era…
CC: I remember in college, the class was African American Political Thought and the professor, Dr. Anthony Neal, assigned Race Matters by Cornell West as one of the books for the class. That book changed the way that I looked at life, the way I looked at race and the way that I looked at my response to race and racism. And now to see Dr. West… Do you think that he has lost some of the prestige of that work and the work that followed?
BS: No… I don’t follow Dr. West now. I think that entrepreneurial intellectualism is an interesting niche… It’s an interesting career choice and path. The extreme pettiness towards Barack Obama is just distasteful, but that does not take away from how well [written] and how good of a book Race Matters is. Race Matters will always be one of the better scholarly books written on race in this country.
CC: Yes, sir. How do you want to be remembered?
BS: As a father and a husband… But as a change agent… I think I could live if those were the words on my tombstone.
CC: If there was one specific lesson that you learned from your father that you are now passing on to your daughter, what would it be?
BS: You have to become a part of something larger than yourself. The light has to be dedicated to others and other people less fortunate. You know, you have to give every single day to something that’s larger than you.
CC: Amazing. I’m gonna ask one more question… I want to go back to something you said before… If you were in a room right now with a [group] of African American men, what would you say to them to encourage or ignite change in them?
BS: I would be like, “Look, fellas, we have to dream with our eyes open. There’s nothing that we cannot accomplish. And the best thing that we can do for our culture is to be an example. So, I think that we owe that to those who bled and led and were imprisoned before us… I’m no different from you; you’re no different from me. We just happen to be blessed with certain opportunities, now let’s go back and make sure that everyone else has those same opportunities so that we can lift each other up.”