Bakari Sellers on a Life Shaped by the Rural South's Civil Rights Movement

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tags: civil rights, African American history, Southern history

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.


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.

Read entire article at Facing South

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