Bakari Sellers (Courtesy photo)

At 22, Bakari Sellers had already made history.

The son of civil rights icon Cleveland Sellers, Bakari stunned the political world by defeating a 26-year incumbent state representative to become the youngest member of the South Carolina state legislature. 

With the improbable 2006 victory, Sellers became the youngest African-American elected official.

Sellers earned an undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and a law degree from the University of South Carolina.

Like his father, Sellers has displayed a commitment to civil rights and addressing issues plaguing Black America like education, poverty, domestic violence and childhood obesity.

He served on President Barack Obama’s South Carolina steering committee during Obama’s historic 2008 run for the oval office.

A lawyer, best-selling author and CNN commentator, Sellers earned the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of South Carolina in 2014.

Reflecting on his still young and already successful life, Sellers refuses to take anything for granted.

He continues to draw inspiration from his father, Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights champions as he seeks to push the dialogue about the vast racial inequalities for which Black leaders have fought and died.

“I think in the conversations we’re having across the country, people want to know how to talk to their kids about the issues of race. So with young Brown kids, Black kids, they’ll get a sense of pride,” Sellers said during an interview at the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. 

“With white kids or others, they’ll read the book and they’ll get a sense of understanding. We live in a country where we have an empathy deficit because we don’t know or understand the struggles of others. I think this book helps break it down for kids who are ages four to eight, if not younger, to understand and be prideful in who they are and where they come from,” Sellers continued.

While his books like “Who Are Your People?” and “My Vanishing Country: A Memoir” have sparked needed dialogue, Sellers plans to do more.

Notably, he said he wants to lift the importance of the civil rights movement.

“I want to put together an overview and then dig down deep into pieces and maybe tell some stories about the heroes and heroines who got us this far, the shoulders upon which we stand,” Sellers asserted.

His father, Cleveland, counted as a key figure in pushing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – or SNCC – in the direction of grassroots organizing for Black political power.

Cleveland Sellers was one of the 28 people wounded during The Orangeburg Massacre in 1968. 

The deadly incident occurred at South Carolina State University as highway patrol units fired upon nonviolent and unarmed student protestors.

Three students were killed.

“My father was shot in the shoulder,” Bakari Sellers remarked. “The unique part of that is that all of the officers were charged and it was the first time in the country’s history that law enforcement was charged with federal crimes.”

A jury rendered not guilty verdicts and prosecutors lodged five felony charges against Cleveland Sellers that carried a 75-year prison sentence.

“My father was charged, convicted and sentenced to hard labor,” Sellers said. “Ironically, they misplaced evidence and backdated the indictment from February 8 (when the massacre occurred) to February 6, meaning that my father was really convicted of being a one-man riot.”

Sellers remarked how his family got involved in the movement after the murder of Emmet Till. 

“My father came to Howard University and befriended Stokely Carmichael and the rest is history,” he said.

Following Cleveland’s stint in hard labor, Sellers said his father returned home facing the odds of being Black with a felony on his record.

He recalled how his mother would give birth to his sister while Cleveland was in prison.

However, Cleveland would earn a degree from Harvard and later, he landed a job as a college president.

“I joke that my family was probably the only guy on the yard with a degree from Harvard,” Sellers said.

He noted that his mother “was one of the strongest people I know.”

“Her family was middle class and they weren’t necessarily too keen of the movement but aware,” Sellers said. “But my mother was part of that school desegregation class at Hamilton High School in Memphis, so there’s that history on both sides of the family.” 

Sellers notes how his life has been bookended by tragedy – the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre and the 2015 Charleston Massacre, where he lost a friend.

“This is the Negro experience in America,” Sellers said. “I want to tell the stories about the Black women who always sit on the front two rows of the church wearing their big hats and when you hug them, you smell like Chanel all day long, and they use two sticks of butter in their pies.”

He continued:

“And the stories of the men who served in Vietnam and who sit in the barbershop all day without getting a haircut and talking about why Muhammad Ali would beat Mike Tyson and when Dr. King came through town.”

“We have to own our story. If we don’t, people will tell you that Dr. King came down to this country, won a Nobel Prize, told you to judge people by the content of their character and not by their skin color and then he died in his sleep. They don’t tell you about the revolutionary that was Dr. King,” he said. 

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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