By MARTY LEVINE
“Today, I wanted to have a conversation, particularly as Black folk, how we take this journey to hope, how we remain faithful and hopeful yet rooted in our history — understanding that knowledge thereof is the only way that we can move forward,” said Bakari Sellers, opening his talk, “Our Voice, Our Vote,” on June 7.
Sellers’ presentation, sponsored by the School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems and Pittsburgh’s African American Strategic Partnership, was predicated on the idea that, given everything from white supremacy to the Jan. 6 insurrection, it is necessary to ask two questions: “How far have we come?” and “Where do we go from here?”
Sellers — an activist, lawyer, author, CNN analyst and once the youngest state legislator in the country — began by delving deeper into history, reviewing three stories of activism and legal action leading to change:
1947 case of Elmore v. Rice: South Carolina resident George Elmore, a Black man prevented from voting by poll workers, sued the state for being disenfranchised. Sellers related how the lawsuit cost Elmore everything from the many small businesses he owned to the health and life of his wife, as they suffered fire-bombings and cross burnings. “He died a very financially, emotionally, mentally broken man, but Elmore v. Rice is the reason that African-Americans can vote in primaries, particularly throughout the South. So since George sacrificed for that franchise and right to vote, ask yourself that very simple question: How far have we come?”
1954 South Carolina case of Sarah Mae Flemming: Sellers said this is a case that not enough people know about. “She is one of my heroes, he said. “Sarah was unique in that she was doing that back-breaking generational labor, cleaning up hotels, when she and her girlfriend were getting off work and they were so tired that they took a seat on a bus. … The bus driver told her to get off the bus, (but) she didn’t go out the back door.” When she used the front door instead, Sellers said, “the bus driver grabbed her by the neck and punched her in the stomach and rode her down the steps. … Sarah’s story is so fascinating because she wasn’t looking to make history that day. … Instead history found her, and she joined with some young enterprising lawyers from the NAACP legal defense fund. Sarah Mae Flemming … laid the foundation in action and law for another young lady who sat down 18, 19 months later named Rosa Parks.” He concluded: “Ask yourself that very simple question, how far have we come?”
1949 South Carolina case brought by Harry and Eliza Briggs: The couple merely “wanted their young people to have the opportunity to ride school buses” to school instead of getting up before dawn and walking as many as six miles. Briggs v. Elliott was one of the first cases filed in the landmark collection of cases known as Brown vs. Board of Education, which produced a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that “segregation causes a sense of inferiority by placing children in environments not conducive to learning,” Sellers noted. “Since Brown vs. Board of Education, ask yourself that very simple question: How far have we come?”
Despite Elmore winning voting rights, he continued, voting “impediments pop up year after year, in legislature after legislature, and we can’t even agree to make voting a federal holiday.” Flemming simply wanted access to a public amenity, he said, “but now we live in communities where many Black and brown folk or poor folk don’t have access to public transportation or affordable housing or even clean water.”
And the Briggs family just wanted access to decent schooling, but today “kids are literally punished because of the ZIP code that they’re born into. Kids go to school where their heating and air don’t work, where their infrastructure’s falling apart, where we’re literally not preparing young people for the 21st century global economy.
“So again ask yourself that very simple question: How far have we come? … The answer honestly is that we’ve made progress but we still have yet a ways to go. If that’s not what you deduce then you’re just being intellectually dishonest.
“But now on this journey to hope that we’re taking this morning … in these doldrums of hopelessness, understand that our history is … the best catalyst for what our future entails,” he added.
“‘Where do we go from here?’ is the most difficult question I encounter,” Sellers said. “I don’t have the answer to that question.” Citing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, “You could either have chaos or community,” he said. “It seems like we’re on the brink of chaos but the challenge for all of us … is to rebuild community.”
One man who found his community through activism was Sellers’ father, Cleveland Sellers, whose work was spurred by the photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s broken and abused body, following a lynching in 1955, that appeared in Ebony magazine.
Cleveland Sellers began to lead small marches and protests in his hometown of Denmark, S.C., and at Howard University befriended the Black activist Stokely Carmichael, dropped out and became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was part of a group that travelled to Mississippi in 1964 to investigate the disappearance of three fellow activists — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — who were murdered after trying to register local Black citizens to vote.
The elder Sellers later became national program secretary and field director under Carmichael and John Lewis, later a U.S. representative from Georgia. He was shot and arrested in February 1968 after state police fired on protesters trying to desegregate what Bakari Sellers called “the last vestige of discrimination, Jim Crow’s final hiding place in South Carolina,” the All-Star Bowling Alley. Police beat the protesters and, following another protest two days later, state troopers tracked the protesters to a gathering place and opened fire, killing three and wounding 28.
Those in law enforcement were acquitted of the shootings, while Sellers “was found guilty,” his son said, and sentenced to a year of hard labor. “He was charged, tried and convicted of rioting, becoming the first and only one-man riot in the history of this country.
“The lessons that I learned from people like him (is that) we have to rededicate ourselves to the proposition of loving our neighbors. ... Only Black folk in this country have the responsibility, the awesome responsibility, of having to love your neighbors even when they don’t love you and that’s an especially hard, unique type of love.
“The second thing I think we have to do is remember that we are a people of dreamers who always dreamed of things yet to be seen and there’s a certain element of me that believes that we have forgotten that notion.”
When he became a legislator, he said, “I always believed that I was … dreaming with my eyes open. I always believed that I was trying to be bigger and better than my ZIP.”
Recalling standing with presidential candidate Barack Obama at a South Carolina rally during Obama’s first campaign — a rally in a gymnasium named after the three people killed following the All-Star Bowling protest — he said: “I remember thinking clearly: I was 19 miles away from where I was dreaming with my eyes open, where I had the audacity to tell my parents I was going to run for the state house, where I wanted to be a part of the change I wanted to see in the world, and I was 300 yards away from where my father was shot. … So I remind you all and I tell you all as we go through this story, that those two questions that we’re asking, ‘How far have we come?’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’ we have to be nuanced in understanding and use that historical context.“
All the activists whose stories he told earlier, he added, “will be looking down on us with pride,” especially if they can “say we have left this country better than the one we inherited.”
Asked during a question-and-answer session at the end what people could best do today, he said: “We have to deconstruct these systems of oppression and rebuild them in an image that is reflective of us all.”
One participant posited that change only comes with catastrophic events, and Sellers at first countered this notion: “If y’all think we’re going to get gun control because some brown kids in Texas just got slain, then y’all are silly. Because if you kill 26 little white kids in Connecticut (at Sandy Hook Elementary) and don’t do nothing about it, they’re not about to do nothing about it now.”
On the other hand, he asserted, “every ounce of change we’ve ever had in this country has been because of Black blood that’s flowed in the streets,” pointing to the water hoses and billy clubs used against marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act; the assassination of King leading to the Fair Housing Act of 1968; and the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C>, leading to the removal of the Confederate flag in that state.
“In order for us to have change in this country, do Black folks still have to pay the highest price? I think that’s a legitimate question and I don’t know the answer to it because right now it appears that that answer is yes.”
For George Floyd to get accountability after his murder by police in Minneapolis, Sellers noted, it took having the killing filmed and shown to a captive audience during a pandemic, causing “worldwide outrage. That is the price that it took for a Black man to get accountability in this country.”
Sellers also was asked what ways the current generation of young people can make the most impact to carry on this work, and how can the older generation most effectively support this work.
The older generation, he said, “needs to get out of the way,” allowing the younger generation, which has been through so much, to lead. “We forget that being an example is one of the most valuable things we can do.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.