The Current

On Juneteenth, Bakari Sellers reflects on struggle for Black freedom through generations of his own family

Author and political analyst Bakari Sellers traces the struggle for Black freedom in his own family — from his father, shot in the Orangeburg Massacre, to his own daughter joining Black Lives Matter marches today.

Sellers' father shot at 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, while his daughter marches today

Writer and political analyst Bakari Sellers says his father's struggle for civil rights defines him today, because that struggle continutes. (John R. Walder/Carbon Thread Agency)

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Writer and political analyst Bakari Sellers felt "so much pride" when he saw his teenage daughter join recent Black Lives Matter protests — but the feeling was short-lived.

"The sadness comes in: like, why does my 15-year-old black daughter have to write Black Lives Matter on a sign and go out and yell it at the top of her lungs?" said Sellers, who at 22 became one of the youngest people ever elected to the South Carolina legislature, and is now a political analyst for CNN.

"Why can't she be like any other white kid in this country, where their life matters, we know that, and they don't have to advocate or push for people to recognize their humanity," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Sellers explores the legacy and trauma of the fight for civil rights in his memoir My Vanishing Country. (Harper Collins)

Sellers looks at that long struggle for Black freedom in his new book, My Vanishing Country: A Memoir. In part, the book recounts the experience of his father, educator and veteran civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, who was shot by state troopers during the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968.

"My father is 75, I'm 35 — and the problem we have in our country is that we're still sharing many of the same experiences," said Sellers.

Protests erupted across North America and the world in recent weeks, spurred by the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, under the knee of an arresting police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25.

Initial protests have grown into demonstrations and conversations about systemic racism in all walks of life, including the media and education system.

Sellers spoke to Galloway on Juneteenth, the day that commemorates when the last slaves were freed in the U.S. on June 19, 1865.

He called it a day of "rebirth and rejuvenation," but also a day to remember the millions of Black people who perished under slavery, the abuses suffered by those who lived, and the legacy of trauma that still exists today. 

"Even when people ask me for an autograph or to sign the book, I'm reminded that I'm signing a name that's not mine," he told Galloway.

"When my family came off the coast of Sierra Leone on to the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, the brothers were sold — one to the Sellers family, and one to the Millhouse family," he said.

"So even when I sign my name on what is one of the pinnacles or highlights of my life, I'm signing a name that harkens back to those days when we were enslaved, a name that's not mine."

The Orangeburg Massacre

On the night of Feb. 8, 1968, protesters gathered around a bonfire at the South Carolina State University campus, after a civil rights demonstration in the city earlier in the day. 

State highway patrolmen lined up along the embankment near the demonstrators, and opened fire on them for eight seconds — shooting 22 people in total.

Three young men in their late teens were killed: Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton.

Sellers' father was shot in the shoulder and taken to hospital, where he was arrested under five felony counts. In 1970, he was convicted on a charge of inciting rioting (his indictment had been backdated to Feb. 6, to include unrest that occurred that night).

"He became the first and only one-man riot in the history of this country," Sellers said. 

The blood of my family literally runs through the soil of our great country- Bakari Sellers

His father served seven months in prison, missing the birth of his first child. On release, he lived with a felony on his record until he was pardoned 25 years later. 

"February 8 is the most important day of my life, even though it was 16 years before I was born," said the younger Sellers. 

"The blood of my family literally runs through the soil of our great country."

Nine officers who fired shots into the group had been charged, tried and found not guilty in 1969. 

Sellers pointed out that the original protest that day in Orangeburg was about segregation at a whites-only bowling alley.

"Think about that — all this carnage because black kids wanted to bowl in South Carolina."

Raptors President Masai Ujiri speaks to The Current's Matt Galloway about protests over anti-Black racism, police brutality and his reaction to the video of George Floyd's death. 1:41

'We still are not free'

Sellers said that "even as we celebrate Juneteenth and we celebrate our freedom from slavery, we realize that we still are not free."

"I think about the struggle of my father and that struggle defines me today, because that struggle continues," he said.

He said it was true that progress had been made, and "my father's work, his generation's work was not in vain."

"But we still have yet a ways to go."

In addition to his 15-year-old daughter, Sellers has 17-month-old twins.

"I am always on this journey … to make sure that they can be free," he said.

"Free to achieve the ideals — not just life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — but the ideals of love, truth, justice and peace." 

Sellers with his twin daughters. (HarperCollins )

He pointed to the 1955 kidnap and murder of Emmett Till as a catalyst for his father's generation of activists. Fourteen-year-old Till was lynched in Mississippi after a white woman said he whistled at her; a claim she admitted on her death bed was a lie.

"As my father lived for Emmett Till, I lived for Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton who were killed in the Orangeburg Massacre," he said.

"Now I also live for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and all of those individuals who we see who've been murdered at the hands of state violence."

That burden can get heavy at times, he told Galloway.

"But it's one that I will drink a little Jameson, go to sleep, wake up and be excited to go out and tackle the world again tomorrow."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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