By Dalton Karwacki
People need a sense of hope and an awareness of history to solve many of the problems in American society, according to Black History Month speaker Bakari T. Seller.
Sellers is a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and the youngest legislator in the United States. The youngest son of civil rights activist Dr. Cleveland Sellers, he graduated from Morehouse College in 2005. He was elected the next year at the age of 22, defeating an incumbent who had held the office for 24 years.
He began his speech with two questions for the audience to consider.
“How far have we come, and where do we go from here?” Sellers asked. “The answer to the question, how far have we come, is pretty straightforward: not far enough.”
He went on to explain that, of course, progress had been made with respect to racial issues in this country but that these issues were far from eliminated. He recounted an old saying, “We’re not where we want to be, but thank God we’re not where we were.”
Sellers continued, saying that, in spite of what many have suggested, President Obama’s election did not instantly end racial problems.
“But I’m not one of those people who believes that when one black man entered the White House, we all entered the promised land,” Sellers said. “Let me be clear: Regardless of what you may have heard on cable news, this is not a post-racial America.”
He clarified that, even though Obama’s inauguration was not a solution, it was undeniably a landmark moment. He talked about the unifying force that the inauguration created by bringing the country together to watch history unfold. He said that the spectacle of the event was not what stands out in his mind.
“What I remember most isn’t the swirling emotions or the great expectations,” Sellers said. “It’s not the oratorical luster or the shimmer of ball gowns. I remember the faces, so many faces, and their brows eased in a way that belied the long history of turmoil and tragedy. And just for that moment, they seemed at peace. It was as if, just for that second, my father’s generation was able to collectively remove history’s burden from their backs.”
Sellers went on to discuss the Civil Rights Movement in general, and his father in particular. He said that, while the movement is nothing but an abstract concept, to those born after it, for his father’s generation, it was a concrete, harsh memory.
“For him, it’s a very real moment; it’s a very real memory, thick with the smell of a jailhouse floor and gun smoke,” Sellers said. “For him, the scars still stand.”
He talked about the day his father and several others gathered to protest the last vestige of segregation in South Carolina: a small, whites-only bowling alley. After some time of peaceful protest, the state police closed in on the protesters and fired at them with live shotgun rounds.
“When the dust and smoke cleared, three young men lay dead, while 27 others were wounded and one man was left to [take] the full weight of the blame,” Sellers said.
“My father was only 23 years old and he helped organize that protest. Who would have thought that the night that saw so much bloodshed would end with him on the steps of the city jail?”
Sellers then discussed the style of public discourse that has become so prevalent today. He said a new, insidious, wounded racism has been on the rise, under the guise of genuine public discourse. He said that this new type of politics is more personal than political.
“When a senator threatens to turn honest debate over how best to provide health care to every American into a Waterloo so he can break the President of the United States, it’s personal,” Sellers said. “When a GOP activist compares our first lady to an escaped gorilla, it’s personal. When a congressman interrupts my commander in chief during an address to a joint session of Congress and calls him a liar, it’s personal.”
Sellers went on to say that he believes the only way to solve the racial issues in this country is to eliminate poverty. This, he said, will finally put black and white Americans on a truly even footing.
“In my state, infant mortality rates are more than twice as high for black children as white,” Sellers said. “In fact, a child has a better chance of survival being born in Grenada, Panama, Botswana, or Cuba than being born black in South Carolina. Unemployment, teen pregnancy and drug addiction disproportionately affect black people across ‘post-racial America.’”
All of these problems, he said, can be traced back to poverty. To this end, he said that eliminating poverty for all Americans can make all of the social inequities fall away.
While America is still far from being post-racial, he said, progress has been made. Because of this, Sellers said that he remains hopeful for the future.
“I remain optimistic,” Sellers said. “I still believe in hope, because as tough as it gets, we have to remain vigilant. We have to remain hopeful, because that’s the only way to combat hopelessness. We have to be apostles of hope.”