UNION — South Carolina Rep. Bakari Sellers spoke at USC Union on Wednesday, with a message of reflection and inspiration.
Wednesday’s event, held in celebration of Black History Month, was hosted by the university’s AAA/MWOM (African American Association/Men and Women on a Mission) student group.
Sellers began by discussing the story of historical figure and his biggest inspiration, Cleveland Sellers, who is also his father.
Cleveland Sellers was the only person convicted as a result of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, in which South Carolina Highway Patrol officers fired into a crowd of protesters who were demonstrating against segregation at a bowling alley near the campus of South Carolina State University. Three men — Smith Hammond, Henry Smith and Delano Middleton — were killed and 28 people were injured. The protests began on Feb. 6 at the All-Star Bowling Alley, which had prohibited black students from entering, and then took place on the campus of South Carolina State on Feb. 7 and Feb. 8, when the massacre occurred.
Bakari Sellers explained that students were beaten with batons which had rawhide whips on them, and many remember seeing Dr. Emma McCain being held and beaten by officers. He also said that moments before the guns were turned on the crowd, protesters were clapping and singing protest hymns near a bonfire. He said they could not foresee guns being turned on them and firing buckshot. One of those who was injured was Cleveland Sellers, and when he was recognized at the hospital, he was arrested and taken to jail. When he went to trial in 1970, he was convicted of rioting based on events that occurred two days before the massacre, and he served seven months in state prison. Twenty-five years later, he was pardoned by the governor. Bakari said when his father is asked about his greatest sacrifice, he says it is not being in jail, but being in jail for the birth of his oldest daughter.
Bakari graduated from Morehouse College in 2005 at age 20, and then studied law at USC in Columbia. At that time, he told his parents he wanted to run for State House of Representatives while sitting in their kitchen.
“My mom said she would vote for me; my dad said he would think about it,” he said.
Bakari described a tough campaign — in which he knocked on more than 2,600 doors — which resulted in a win in 2006. At age 22, he became the youngest member of the South Carolina General Assembly at the time.
During the 2008 presidential campaigns, Bakari said he was asked for an endorsement by John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He specifically described a phone call from Obama, which he received on his way to a Constitutional Law class. He joked that his caller ID showed “private,” which either meant someone important or someone attempting to collect a student loan payment.
“I told him I couldn’t talk all that long because I was on my way to a Con. law class,” he said. “You try to be sharp when you’re talking to people, but I had a memory lapse. I forgot that he used to teach Con. law at the University of Chicago.”
Bakari said he had trouble answering Obama’s questions because he had missed classes due to the General Assembly being in session. When Obama asked for his endorsement, Bakari said he would give it to him under two conditions — that his mother would be able to work on the campaign and that he would come to his district. Both conditions were met. Obama spoke at the SHM Memorial Center — South Carolina State’s gymnasium which was named in memory of Smith, Hammond and Middleton. Bakari said he opened the program, and the decibel level of the crowd grew with each speaker — Chris Tucker, Kerry Washington, Usher and Obama.
“You realize one day you’ve done something that’s pretty cool,” Bakari said. “The dream — that started in my kitchen — to change the world brought me so far, but I only went 19 miles.”
He then turned the focus of his speech to the young people in attendance.
“Dream with your eyes open,” he said. “As we take this journey to excellence together, we have to change our culture — not black, white or southern, but all people that are good.”
“We have created a culture of low expectations,” he added. “It’s harder to dream with your eyes open. We forget the theory of interdependency. We’re all in this together.”
He discussed the importance of encouraging young people and those who are young at heart.
“It’s important to tell that person they can be a lawyer, but more important to tell them they can be Thurgood Marshall,” he said. “It’s important to tell that person they can be a scientist, but more important to tell them they can be George Washington Carver.”
Before taking questions from those in attendance, Bakari closed with a quote from Benjamin E. Mays:
“Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no man yet to be born can do it any better.”
A variety of questions was asked during the question-and-answer portion of the event. Professor Thomas Simpson asked Bakari what his dream is for South Carolina.
“South Carolina is a tough place,” he said, explaining that he loves the state and chose to attend law school at USC over two other schools to which he was accepted — Harvard University and Emory University. He also said problems include people leaving the state, and others being resistant to change.
“Anything resistant to evolution will die,” he said. “I want to have conversations about getting STEM programs in schools, not rebuilding schools because a roof fell in. I want to have conversations about how to bring industries to South Carolina and train the workforce.”
Bakari also assured local residents that they are well represented in the State House.
“We don’t have enough Mike Anthonys!” he said.
Bakari Sellers earned a law degree from USC in 2008 and he currently works for former U.S. Attorney Pete Strom. He sponsored a House bill to put SROs (School Resource Officers) in every school, and a hearing about the bill took place Wednesday morning.
Staff Writer Derik Vanderford can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 29, or by email at email@example.com.