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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
BOND: Representative Sellers, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. We’re glad to have you.
SELLERS: Well, thank you for having me. It’s a blessing to be here today.
BOND: It’s our pleasure having you. Let me ask you a question about the Brown decision, which happened thirty years before you were born. But even though you didn’t see it happen or witness it happen, you surely have been affected by it in various kinds of ways. What do you think it meant to you as a school child?
SELLERS: I think that it broke down barriers, substantial barriers, to growth and development. I think it gave the opportunity for blacks and whites to sit down together and have the dialogue and even more importantly, I think it shattered the theory that was established by Plessy, that you had to be separate and that was still equal, so I was, even though it was twenty-nine, thirty-some odd years before I was born, I think that was the landmark case in my life and whenever I speak, I often use Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in which he said that segregation causes a sense of inferiority by placing children in environments not conducive to learning — I oftentimes use that as a point whereby I begin to talk about where we have come from and where we go from here.
BOND: Let me ask you a question that most people who sit in your chair say "my parents," and I know you’ll say that, but I want you to talk about others as well. Who are the people who’ve been most significant in shaping your life and career?
SELLERS: Well, as I oftentimes tell people, and I said this recently, I said that I truly believe in my political career I want to be more Julian Bond than Barack Obama.
BOND: Thank you.
SELLERS: And I look at those people like Marion and — I studied Marion Barry in his first two terms and the way he was able to impact middle class growth and economic development in the city of D.C. — and, of course, my parents. They had a huge influence on me, but growing up in small town South Carolina, you really had that community feel so there were— you know, Miss Shirley Archer who taught me in fifth grade and my aunt Jenny Marie Sellers, who was the matriarch of the family and during her — when she was at Shadow Oaks Nursing Home, we took her to T.G.I. Friday’s because she loved soft-serve ice cream and after she really truly recognized who I was, she told me, she said, “You’re the one that’s in law school.” And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And she said, “Well, make sure you grow up to be a good lawyer and not a good liar.” So those are the type of people that have influenced me as I’ve matriculated and those are the people that I try to make proud.
BOND: I know you played leadership roles when you were in college at our alma mater, Morehouse College, but what about in the lower grades — student government and so on?
SELLERS: I was a lot younger. When I entered high school, I was only twelve. When I completed high school, I was only sixteen. So I really didn’t find my niche and I think that’s what I try to urge older generations to do, with my generation, is to be patient with us, because a lot of times, we’re wayward teens and we’re just looking for a niche, looking for a way. And I found that a little bit later. I found that around eighteen or nineteen, so I wasn’t quite a knucklehead but I was just kind of coasting along. School came relatively easy to me, so I played basketball and did other things. I did pretty well on standardized tests, so I just pretty much tried to find myself and tried to make some type of impact on this world that we live in.
BOND: What about groups like the Boy Scouts or other groups not connected to a school or a church affiliation?
SELLERS: In poor rural South Carolina, it’s very hard to find a Boy Scout troop, in Bamberg County. We didn’t have one. I learned how to do many things. I learned how to jump ditches and play youth football and basketball at the Denmark Recreation Center. I mean, it’s a cinderblock building that my father and some other influential individuals in the community ran. We didn’t have a lot of money. We had a lunch program where they would come and deliver us our baloney sandwiches with a little fruit snack and during the mornings, we would read books and we would have some of the high school and elementary school teachers come in and work with us on our skills. In the afternoon, we had one basketball goal with a wooden backboard. And it sounds like I’m telling a story like I’m sixty-five or seventy years old, but, no, this is the present-day reality and then we would go back in the back and we had this huge ditch and I had to fall in it three or four times before I realized how to navigate when I got up in the air. So those are the type of experiences and at the end of the summer, we would go to Carowinds. And a lot of times with my friends growing up, that was the only time that’d been outside of the city of Denmark. So, it was an awesome experience and that’s kind of how I matriculated and grew up in Denmark.
BOND: What about particular events that happened in your lifetime or that your father, particularly, who is a icon of the civil rights movement referenced to when you were younger — what about specific historical events? How did they affect you?
SELLERS: I always say that the most important day in my life was February 8, 1968, and that was the day of the Orangeburg Massacre and that, although it was some twenty-odd years before I was born, is by the far the almost important day in my life, and from that, I oftentimes carry the chip on my shoulder, especially in my legislative duties, of Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond, and Delano Middleton. And I try to just to do things that I feel will help continue their mission in life, though they died at a very young age, and my hope and goal is that every day that I stay here, I continue to move that mission and move that goal forward, although the goal may have switched and changed just a little bit, I try to continue down that path. So, that is, by far, the most important day of my life, and throughout my life, I’ve had some interesting experiences.
Going to the fortieth SNCC reunion and just having those type of discussions with icons of the civil rights movement and just, you know, sitting in my father’s class and learning something new every day have been awesome experiences. And then my four years at Morehouse College cannot be underestimated or devalued because those helped mold the man that I am today and learning the lessons of Benjamin E. Mays and Dr. King and yourself and having the opportunity to sit and talk with Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee, and just knowing of the struggles of —
BOND: Morehouse men, we should mention.
SELLERS: Morehouse men, definitely. And that definitely gave me a crown above my head and I just have to try to continue to grow until I can reach it.
BOND: Let’s talk for a while about February 8, 1968. This affected your father. Tell us about that. How did it grab him?
SELLERS: I think I need to preface that with saying that I think that I’m angrier about February 8th than he is. I think he’s come to some reconciliation within his own heart about that day, but it was a day that will forever stain the history of our great state and the state I love and the state I decided to come back to when I finished college, and there remains a lot of unanswered questions about what actually happened that day. But at the end of the day, I think what I take from it is that you had a powerful group of youth who decided that they were going to break down — I believe Jack Nelson and Jack Bass described this as the last vestige of discrimination and Jim Crow’s final hiding place — and just that gumption or that courage, that audacity, for them to believe that they could break down that last barrier of segregation in South Carolina just showed the strength of that generation, that young generation. And then how they were met with just brutal lethal force when they attempted to do so by people who had cast themselves in a light that was something other than that.
For example, Governor McNair was hoping to be a vice presidential nominee during that time and he couched South Carolina as one of the states that was bridging this gap in a state of racial harmony and February 8th blew that up and I think as well blew up his chances to be vice president of the United States. So there’re a lot of different nuances that go, whether it’s political, it’s a political nuance that you have to deal with. It’s people’s lives that you have to deal with. Then you’re talking about all of this happening on a college campus and then you don’t hear about South Carolina State, but two years later, everyone knows about Kent State and I truly believe that if the lessons were learned from Orangeburg, then we could’ve saved a number of lives at Kent.
BOND: How did this engage your father?
SELLERS: My father doesn’t talk about it anymore.
BOND: But you know the history. You know the chronology.
SELLERS: Yes. And you know, my father was so involved in it but yet so removed from it. You know, he stayed on campus that day because there was a tank pointed directly at his house that morning so he felt best and he always says that “accidents do happen,” so he stayed on campus that day and he wasn’t a organizer, per se, of what was going on, and he was down at the field when they decided to protest, but I think you know growing up in SNCC and he knows that night protests are absolutely the worst idea possible, so I don’t think that that was something that he orchestrated but he did get shot and arrested. And I think that egged me on just a little bit in my legal career because I kind of understood how the judiciary system kind of yanked him around and the criminal justice system didn’t quite do him justice until about twenty-five years later —
BOND: When he —
SELLERS: — when he got pardoned.
And interestingly enough, he, still, to this day, I truly believe regrets not being with his wife when his oldest child was born and not being able to be there for my sister’s first year. There’s a great picture where my mom has this huge Afro and my dad has this huge Afro and he’s in this blue correctional get-up and it’s the first time that he saw his daughter. And I don’t know how they got the picture taken, but he’s sitting there looking down and my mom’s looking up at the camera and it’s on my Facebook page. You got Facebook?
BOND: I’m sorry to say yes.
SELLERS: Good. Good. Well, we have to be friends, but it’s on my Facebook page and a lot of people comment on that and for my generation, that’s cool.
BOND: Let’s go back to the Denmark Recreation Center. This was a privately established place?
SELLERS: The Denmark Recreation Center is a non-profit. It’s truly — it’s a cinderblock building with two rooms in the back. One is a very small 8’by 8’ room that’s a closet where we put all of our football equipment for football season. The other room to the right in the back is a kitchen where all you had was a stove, a window, and a refrigerator. And the rest of it’s open area. And it was a place where they didn’t turn away kids. It might’ve been $30 to come for the summer. It was maybe an eight-week program, ten-week program and it was $30, and Miss Brenda Jeffrey who I’ll never forget — she was a teacher at the primary school in Denmark, she kind of orchestrated the curriculum and my father and Mr. Jeffrey, Miss Brenda’s husband, and Mr. Alfred Myers — they were the four who I remember so vividly and they would be there every day and we would have the lunch program and before the lunch program would come, we would — my dad or someone, they would go and put together money and they would bring us like chicken snack boxes from Hardee’s until the lunch program started.
I don’t remember one white kid that went there, but that’s because in Denmark, the white community is an older community. And their kids, they did go to primary school and they did interact with African Americans, but by the time that I came along, they were all older and gone. There aren’t very many young white youth in the city of Denmark, so out of this recreation center stemmed our youth soccer, youth baseball, youth basketball, and youth football programs. And that’s what we talk about today and that’s what kind of carried us through and we didn’t — I mean, everybody looked forward to that trip to Carowinds, but we didn’t miss anything. I mean, that’s what we knew. That’s what we grew up on, and we really didn’t miss anything.
BOND: You spoke a moment ago about picking law as a career. Is there more to it than you told us?
SELLERS: I think law is really happenstance for me. I mean, it was — I remember the day that I decided that a legal career or law school may be something that I want to attempt to do, and that’s when I was interning for Congressman Clyburn. I was in D.C. and I was with Yebbie [Yelberton] Watkins, who is his Chief of Staff, who’s a very good friend of mine. We're like — he’s like my big brother now. I admire him so much for all the things he’s accomplished and he was a Georgetown Law student. Well, he completed his law degree at Georgetown, and we went in various offices, and everyone who worked on Capital Hill had a J.D. And I said, “Wow, this opens a lot of doors, so you don’t necessarily have to practice law. You can do a lot with this degree." And we talked about it and, like I said, it was either Teach for America or law school and to be completely honest, the LSAT doesn’t have any math on it so that also wooed me and I was not going to take a graduate school exam with math on it, so that’s how I ended up.
BOND: Do you find it ironic or just a commentary on South Carolina being a relatively small state that you now work for the son of the man who arrested your father and put him in jail?
SELLERS: I find it ironic. It’s something that we don’t talk about every day. He’s a brilliant, brilliant lawyer, and I am learning a lot from him. But he loves his father tremendously —
BOND: Sure, of course.
SELLERS: — just like I love my father and just like your son loves you and you love your father. I mean, it’s an undying love, and when you talk about South Carolina law enforcement, you have to mention the name of J.P. Strom, his father, I mean that he was the chief of SLED for twenty-seven, maybe thirty years.
BOND: And SLED was the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.
SELLERS: South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and they said that although Governor McNair brought in the National Guard to Orangeburg in February of ’68, Chief Strom still was the man. I mean, everybody knew that he was the chief. But Chief Strom also didn’t want to prosecute my father. He felt like that would cause some type of social unrest. That decision laid in the lap of Governor McNair, but Dr. King did say something that was quite interesting that I don’t know if my boss knows, but — it’s something we don’t talk about a lot — and Dr. King in his letter wrote that the blood of the three individuals who died rests on the souls of Chief Strom and Robert McNair, so that’s a little interesting and we just — we live by the theory that you can’t blame a man for the sins of his father and I think it shows some reconciliation. And not too many people know about it. I asked my father how would he feel about it, and my father’s like, "You know what, okay, whatever, you know, pass the hot sauce, it’s okay." And he was cool with it and my mom was cool with it and other than that, not too many people know about it.
BOND: But it does say something about at least a change in South Carolina’s race relations, don’t you think?
BOND: That the son is different from that father.
SELLERS: Yeah, he’s definitely different. I mean, I'm —
BOND: As you’re in some ways different from your father.
SELLERS: Oh, definitely. And, I mean, he tells you that he’s grown up with African Americans his whole life. I mean, he attributes — there was one lady who raised him practically his whole life and is still there with his family to this day, and she’s not a nanny or an aide. I mean, she’s a grandmother. I mean, she is a fixture, a permanent fixture in the family. And I guess that shows you how things heal and things change with time.
BOND: You mentioned your internship with Congressman Clyburn, but you also work with Shirley Franklin, the Mayor of Atlanta. How’d that come about?
SELLERS: I just called Shirley Franklin and told her who my daddy was and said I needed a job. And she said, “Oh, you’re — ” because my father still calls her Shirley Clarke which was her maiden name when she was at Howard and they’ve known each other from Howard, but she is the most dynamic woman that I’ve ever met in my life and she is petite. She’s like 5’3” maybe? 5’4”? And she is so powerful. The Wall Street Journal noted her as being one of the top three mayors of a major city which I thought was pretty impressive, but what she and Congressman Clyburn both taught me is that it was about public service. It wasn’t necessarily about politics. And they spoke to every single person that they encountered which to me was very impressive. It didn’t matter who you were or whether or not you were the custodian or the president, they talked to you with the same respect.
BOND: And what made you think you’d be a fit in the South Carolina legislature?
SELLERS: I thought I wasn’t going to be a fit, but I thought that would make me the most effective. I didn’t want to go and fit in. I thought we had too many African American elected officials trying to fit in. That was the greatest disappointment I had when I got elected, and that’s the greatest disappointment I have not only in our United States Congress but in various state legislatures throughout the country, and that’s the void in African American leadership. I think you have to gain the respect and be a friend to your colleagues, but I don’t think you have to fit in.
BOND: Well, by fitting in, I didn’t mean that you had to go along to get along or get along to go along, but why did you think that would be a place you could serve?
SELLERS: I looked at my community. I came back home. I ran in Denmark. I was raised in Denmark, and I just felt like my community wasn’t even growing stagnantly. I mean, economically, socially, and educationally we were on the decline. I ran against Representative Thomas Rhoad, who was eighty-two years old, had been in office for twenty-six years and is a fine human being, a great person, but I think I felt and my district felt that it was definitely a time for a change. And I think people were refreshed by the type of campaign that I ran. We had billboards. We had radio spots. We had phone banks. We knocked on doors. We ran a real live campaign in Bamberg, Barnwell, and Orangeburg County and it’s something people had never seen before. People weren’t used to, you know, hearing somebody from their hometown on gospel radio every morning leading up to the election, and I would get people to say, “Well, I got your phone call the other day and it was a robo-call,” so people were just not used to it and those type of — it was refreshing and people were able to make me seriously, take my campaign seriously, and although they didn’t think I was going to win, they cast their vote for me anyway, and it was — we cried a lot. My dad cried that night, too. We had this huge poster board that we got from like CVS, and I still have it today and it has all the precincts and we have these T-chart with squiggly lines and how many votes he got and how many votes I got and it rained so hard that the electricity went out in Barnwell County so they had to vote on paper ballots and the votes from Bamberg and Orangeburg County were in and I was up by about 400, 500 votes and I knew that I was going to lose Barnwell County. I also knew there were about 800 votes over there, and I said, "There’re enough votes over other to beat me." So we had to wait on those to come in and I got soundly defeated, but it was only 40 to 8, so I don’t know if they like me too much in Barnwell County. I think they’re starting to like me, but that was a cool night. And I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.
BOND: So your constituents went from being represented by the oldest person in the legislature to being represented by the youngest and how did your colleagues to be take you, your colleagues take you?
SELLERS: Once they realized I wasn’t a page, they loved me. It was cool. I mean, we have — we’re very cordial. We talk a lot. It’s a club. I mean, it is a club. We go to football games together. We go edit on the floor. We call each other every name on the floor but a child of God and afterwards, we go out and we have a beer and we talk about life, so it’s cool. I’m the age of a lot of their kids.
BOND: I’m sure.
SELLERS: But they value my opinion, I think.
BOND: When did you begin to think of yourself as a leader?
SELLERS: I think "leader" is a very — I have a problem with "leader" and "leadership."
BOND: But just by virtue of the position you hold, you are a leader.
SELLERS: I felt that I had the ability to lead the day I won SGA president at Morehouse College, twice. I had to win the race twice, but I felt that as competitive as that is at Morehouse College and what that meant to the student body, is if I was able to convince my peers that have known me for four years that I needed to direct them and guide them and we were going to fight and we got cafeteria workers higher wages while I was there, and we were able to do those types of things, that I had the skill set necessary to be a good leader. And I had also made that decision that that summer I was going to run for the State House of Representatives.
BOND: So the outcome of the Morehouse second election influenced your decision to run for public office.
BOND: Everybody thinks his or her school is the best school and does the best job in molding us, but I think people who went to Morehouse College as you and I did, feel it played a special role in our lives. What did it do for you?
SELLERS: It just showed me that anything is possible. Our roster of alums at Morehouse is comparable to any college or university on the planet and you can compare the persons who graduated from Morehouse College to the persons who graduated from Chapel Hill and U. Va., Georgetown, Princeton, Harvard. You know, Harvard is the Morehouse of the north, and just that in itself shows you that you can absolutely accomplish anything, so it doesn’t give you a false sense of self, but it gives you a sense of self that allows you to work diligently and work as hard as possible so you can achieve your goals and we produce the second most African American doctors, only behind Xavier, in the country, and I think that that stands on its own merit. But going to Morehouse for my freshman year, staying in Graves Hall, behind the statue of Benjamin E. Mays, and going out front and just reading the quotes from Benjamin E. Mays and understanding that there wouldn’t be a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., if there wasn’t a Benjamin E. Mays, and just going and learning the lessons and being on the Board of Trustees with Otis Moss [Jr.]. I mean, that in itself speaks loudly, so there were just times, and they let you grow at Morehouse.
I was an African American Studies major. I started out a bio major and they let you grow and you learn from Anne Watts how to speak and how to enunciate. You go to Crown Forum where you just learn how that you should have some type of spiritual base and you hear different speakers come in and talk to you and then you have A Candle in the Dark when you see alums come back, and you know that your school is important to somebody when Oprah Winfrey comes and gives you a huge check and says that she’s proud of everything that you all have done for African American males. But more importantly, what people do not recognize is although Morehouse is a predominantly black, all-male institution, it is one of the more diverse institutions in this country. We had students from all fifty states and over ninety countries represented, and you learn so much from your colleagues and peers and just learning about different cultures and various backgrounds helped me go back home to South Carolina where we still have that level of growth to do.
BOND: In your legislative experience, you pursue these issues of poverty, of education, trying to take care or help people who cannot help themselves and I’m wondering, in addition to your parents, where does this concern come from? Where do these values come from?
SELLERS: Well, it has to start with my parents. There was no other direction I could’ve taken, but I used to go everywhere with my father. I would be on his leg, and you know, whether or not we were going somewhere to see you [Julian Bond] or whether or not we were hanging out with Reggie [Robinson] or even at Morehouse, they always used to tell me, they’d say, “Your uncle is here.” “My uncle?” They said, “Yeah, your uncle is sitting in your office.” I’d say, “My uncle?” And it would be Willie Ricks sitting in the office, and just growing up around these people — when I pick up the phone and it’s Kathleen Cleaver on the phone, a lot of people don’t have those experiences, so my network was a little bit more expansive and just, you know, Judy Richardson, being able to just walk up and hug her and there were just a lot of people from the former chairman of SNCC to SNCC activists and Rita Bender — great friends.
BOND: Mickey [Michael] Schwerner’s widow.
SELLERS: Yes, and these people, they are heroes and sheroes, and I get to touch them every day and talk to them every day — Connie [Constance] Curry, Bob Zellner, who is a fool, who I love — you know, you just learn so much from these people and it’s just an awesome experience that I’ve been blessed with and those people who gave up so much for social justice, who am I not to do those same type of things?
BOND: At the same time, among this community of SNCC people, many of whose names you’ve called, there’s one in particular whose experience is very different — very similar to that of your father and mine and these others — but whose children have turned out very differently and I’m not going to call his name, but he has two or three children and two or three have followed in his path, as you’ve followed in your father’s, and one has gone the opposite direction. And he is at a loss to explain why this happened, why these two went this way, these two went this way, so why did you go this way? It’s not given that because you have these parents, because they had these experiences, that you’re going to turn out this way.
SELLERS: Well, my sister, she’s found it later in her life. She is a internist and she’s made a lot of money in her career and she did the private practice thing and made goo-gobs of money, but she’s at home now at the Veterans Hospital and she loves it. She loves being able to sit and talk to veterans and talk about their lives and help them, so she’s kind of found that niche — a little bit later in life, but she’s found it. And my brother decided he was going to go into youth ministry, and that was a surprise to us all because he was the wildest one of the bunch, but he decided he was going to go in the youth ministry right after college, right after he graduated. He’s been a youth pastor for a very long period of time now, so he found it later in life. So as much as —
We’re bred on competition. We played Monopoly as a family, Scrabble and I never lost, and if I thought I was going to lose, I would flip the board over. But I wanted to be better than them and I wanted to be a better change agents than them and there was a lot going on and I really don’t think that I could’ve gone left and I don’t know where that comes from, but just deep down in my heart, I don’t think that there is anything else I could’ve done. I don’t think I could be an investment banker in New York. I don’t think I would be happy doing that.
BOND: At the same time, you mentioned Willie Ricks or Mukasa as he’s called as well, who is an early advocate of Black Power. He’s the original Black Power guy, and obviously an influence in your life, but at the same time, here you are someone who reaches out across racial lines so you can take an example from this man, yet not be an imitator of this man. How do you — ?
SELLERS: One thing I realized, and this is scholarly but also listening and learning, listening to Uncle Reg and my dad talk about —
BOND: That’s Reggie Robinson.
SELLERS: Reggie Robinson, talk about just different things that went on in the movement. Reggie always tells the story that he was dressed one way and Dr. King called him one day and said come to his hotel room and gave him all his suits and shoes so he would look better. And you know, they talk about the story, they talk about John Lewis and they talk about the stories of Dr. King and some of his speeches and things of that nature, but I’ve also learned about the Black Power Movement. And what I’ve taken from that is not a radical ideology but it’s a sense of self. It’s a sense of empowering one’s own community. My community has changed, though. My community is not purely an African American community. My community, the problems that affect us are not black versus white. My community are the haves versus the have-nots, so I take the lessons of Willie Ricks and Reggie Robinson and yourself and where we’ve tried to empower African Americans throughout the Deep South, I try to empower the have-nots.
I use a lot of the same tactics. I talk about grassroots organizing and I talk about the roles of social justice organizations and we need to talk about the role that the black church and the NAACP should play from this point forward, but I still talk about — they still do have a role but it’s empowering the have-nots, and that’s what I try to do and those are the lessons that I take from those persons.
BOND: Do you have a vision that guides your work? And if you do, has it changed over time? And if it has, why did it change? First, do you have vision?
SELLERS: I do have a vision and that guides my work and it has changed over time. When I first got to Morehouse and started reading and learning — and I oftentimes caution my generation and just talking to some students here at the University of Virginia — I caution them about being too scholarly and not associating that scholarship with reality, and I had a crash course with that. I was in Raleigh at Shaw University at the last SNCC gathering and I was on this huge Jonathan [John] McWhorter kick — you know, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, the victimology, the anti-victimologists, and all of that stuff, and I was on this huge Jonathan [John] McWhorter kick. And I literally got destroyed in an open debate, in forum, by former SNCC workers and by volunteers and things like that, so I had to go back and reevaluate my vision and see if that was really where I wanted to go and learn a lot, and then I had the opportunities to work for Congressman Clyburn and work for Shirley Franklin and go out and actually touch people and so when I read the Washington Post and when I read The Wall Street Journal and when I watch CNN and when I watch The O’Reilly Factor, I’m able to put that into a context which has shaped my vision, which has changed, and not drastically, but which has changed as I’ve gotten older and my vision currently now is a vision that Jesse, Jr., and I have in common.
BOND: And Jesse, Jr., is?
SELLERS: Jesse Jackson, Jr., and I read his book and it’s synonymous and it’s amazing that I’ve gotten there and he got there, but it’s two fundamental principles — everyone should have access to a first-class education and everyone should have access to quality health care. And he has a huge book that’s pretty thick, and that was the synopsis, and that’s what I got from it and that’s where I am.
BOND: You said it has changed over time, but do you mean the change from being a McWhorter follower to rejecting that and adopting something else, or something more subtle than that?
SELLERS: It’s not a rejection but it’s an understanding that every — all scholarly material is not truth in your particular community. And that’s helped me in understanding a lot of different things. For example, the voucher debate — understanding that when Howard Fuller calls you and talks to you about vouchers and what they’ve done for African Americans in Milwaukee and you talk to Cory Booker or Adrian Fenty about — and you read their works about voucher systems in D.C. and Newark, respectively, you’re able to not jump on the bandwagon of what’s cool in scholarship today but you’re able to put that in context and understand why that may not work for your community.
BOND: I also read in this research we conducted on you is that you’ve said that you might want to be governor of South Carolina one day. Is that an aspiration that you’re working toward or something that may happen?
SELLERS: I don’t know if I’m working toward that. I was speaking with Gwen Ifill when the last question that she had was, you know, "Where do you see yourself maybe in five years?" And I hate questions like that. Those are the absolute worst questions to ask anyone, especially a politician because, you know, our candor response is supposed to be, I’m going to represent the citizens of blank blank as long as they keep me here. And I do want to represent the citizens of District 90 as long as they want me to stay there. I’m not a huge fan of D.C. It’s nine square miles and you don’t have lawns and you can’t, like, ride a horse or something.
BOND: I have a lawn.
SELLERS: You have a lawn?
BOND: I have a lawn, yes.
SELLERS: That’s cool.
BOND: Front lawn and a back lawn.
SELLERS: Really? That’s rare in D.C.
BOND: And a lawnmower.
SELLERS: You have a lawnmower, too?
SELLERS: Well, that’s not typical in D.C., but it’s nine square miles and I love the country living. I love sitting on twenty acres and having cotton fields behind your house and things like that, but the governor does have a nice house and, you know, running a campaign that I think would mean so much to Southerners and if you’re able to win, to be the first black governor of a Southern state. You can say whether or not you want to include Virginia in the South or not. I think that would mean a lot.
BOND: Let me ask you a question. Some people categorize the making of leaders in three ways — A, great people cause great events, or B, movements make leaders, or C, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these fits you?
BOND: C. The confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. And what unpredictable events — ?
SELLERS: I don’t know if they were necessarily unpredictable events, but I think C is a better answer than A and B, because there’s been a confluence of events that have, like I said, in the Reagan administration, I think that we saw the shift from it being a solely race issue to an issue of the haves versus have-nots. I think that the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act — and then you talk about my generation growing up now being a generation that is a lot like that that had to go to Vietnam. I mean, it’s a generation that had to go Iraq and a lot of my classmates — I’ve had three classmates or three persons I went to high school with to die in the Iraq war and so that’s very real to me, so it’s been a confluence of events that I think have prepared me for the time.
BOND: Now, do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
SELLERS: I don’t think you can have one without the other. I think you have to be able to articulate the agenda, but if you’re articulating an agenda and you can’t persuade anybody to buy into it, then it’s a worthless agenda, so I think there’s also a third category and that is, I go to persons who may not have been your friend in the past and attempt to work with them as we move forward with a new agenda.
BOND: In the South Carolina legislature, just naturally there are people who would disagree with you for one reason or another. When you’re proposing that let’s pass legislation A, how do you go about getting a majority of your colleagues to support legislation A?
SELLERS: Well, for me, it’s about numbers and life, I think, is about numbers. And there’re fifty-two Democrats, fifty-one Democrats which means that we oftentimes say you need sixty-two votes plus one friend because there’re a hundred and twenty-four members, so I take that fifty-one and I realize that I need twelve Republicans, which is very difficult, but I siphon off those who I know I won’t get on the issue because there are some who are just purely, purely conservative and just totally right-wing and they just won’t vote with me because I am who I am. But then you look at the moderate Republicans, and you go and you have commonsense conversations with them. And I always talk with my Republican colleagues in a language that they understand, which is money. So, for example, I have a child obesity bill that I hope will save a kid’s life one day, but it regulates the intake, the caloric intake of our students, and childhood obesity is an epidemic that is raging out of control. I put it in a fashion where our schools can partner with our farmers, economic development and our farmers, they get to reap some benefit from this so the agricultural community is behind it. But even more importantly, I hope it will curve off the number of preventable diseases that persons are having like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol. And then you look at that on the secondary level and you say that those persons in South Carolina, they go to the emergency room and you know, they’re uninsured and they’re in our pool, so that costs us about $500 per person per insured individual, so that is the type of message and that’s the way I couch it with my colleagues. And when you say you’re going to save each person in South Carolina $500 and not only that, but you’re going to make sure that our farmers are happy, then it’s amazing that you’ve gotten all the way down this winding road talking about childhood obesity in the school lunch program, but you’ve gotten there. And that’s something they understand and they’re like, “I like this.” So one of my co-sponsors was a Lexington County Republican who is hyper-conservative.
BOND: When you run up against a person who, for philosophical reasons, say this is a great idea, but government should play no role in this, I don’t believe government should have any —
SELLERS: And that’s when my blue dog streak comes out just a little bit, because I have a problem with government playing a huge role in adults’ lives all the time, but here we’re talking about kids and we regulate the lives of children every day.
BOND: But if I were one of these people, I’d say, you’re talking about the nanny state.
SELLERS: And, you know, I have that. Oh, my goodness. That was an argument.
BOND: Taking care of everything we do.
SELLERS: The nanny state, yes, I know, but at the end of the day, I do have those people and some of those people I don’t think I’ll win over. In fact, I’m sure I won’t, but I just look at the larger picture and I say, "Well, you know, we have to stave off this health care crisis that is imminent, so I may not get that nanny state person."
BOND: Is it part of your philosophy not to be discouraged about what I take to be just intense growing partisanship everywhere you look, in the Congress of the United States and local government, even in D.C. where partisan politics don’t intrude that much into city politics. You see it here.
SELLERS: I’m not discouraged at all by partisan politics. I take the cue from my president. He’s not discouraged at all, he epitomizes cool and he stays above — we’re not post-partisanship. We’re not post-racial either, I mean. But he stays above that fray. Some of his “allies,” the Senate Majority Leader or the Speaker of the House, sometimes make it a little bit more difficult for the President to navigate above partisanship as he so often tries to do, but I think he does a good job doing that, and for me, each issue — each issue I try to make a bipartisan issue.
BOND: And if you succeed, good for you, but I look at the President facing a group of people on the other side who say no to everything. If he said motherhood is a good idea, they’d say no to that. How do you deal with those people?
SELLERS: Well, that — my hope is that the Republican Party, and this is going to sound strange, but my hope is that the Republican Party has a moment of introspection because they’re letting the fringe destroy the Party. And I appreciate the dialogue you can get from even a John McCain or a Lindsey Graham, but the Glenn Becks of the world are drowning them out. And I think Lindsey has put his foot down recently and said that he doesn’t watch Glenn Beck and that he’s not afraid of the conservative right wing and he’s done things like bipartisan immigration reform. He’s done things like a patient’s bill of rights with Ted Kennedy and he also voted for Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor. So there are a few. There aren’t enough, but there are a few that think for themselves and hopefully, they take that moment of introspection and they kind of go back to the party that they were, which was not as crazy as they are moving towards now.
BOND: Let’s hope.
BOND: Let’s shift gears a little bit. How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? And is there a distinction between them, and is there a thing — I think you answered it a moment ago — such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
SELLERS: There is a thing such a race-transcending leader and my hope is to be a transformative race-transcending leader. I don’t represent African Americans in District 90 in the South Carolina General Assembly. I represent all South Carolinians in my district and I represent all 4.2 million South Carolinians in the General Assembly, so I think that I am a societal representative, not necessarily a racial representative, and I think that was — I think we had a referendum on that within our own African American community. And I think that persons who wanted Barack Obama to be a “black” leader first and then run for President of the United States, were proven to be wrong and inaccurate in their analysis as the country was ready for Barack Obama to be a leader of the free world and not necessarily just a leader of black America.
BOND: I know in your own campaign that you knocked on doors that had a Confederate flag hanging in the yard or something and places where they’re likely to give you your campaign literature back when you give it to them, but do you have a different leadership style when you’re dealing with an all-black audience, an all-white audience, a mixed audience? Last night, here at the University of Virginia, you spoke to a mixed race audience. How would you have been different or would you have been different had that been an all-black audience?
SELLERS: I don’t think I would’ve been different at all. I think that you feel a lot from your audience. Any speaker knows that they kind of pull back from their audience. I don’t write a lot unless I’m giving a very formal speech in front of AIPAC, for example. I will write then, or — but I don’t really write a lot when I’m in front of groups like that because I like to tell my story. I like for it to be fresh and truthful, and I think that the audience will follow you, be they black, white or mixed, as long as you remain truthful and fresh.
BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen and he writes “of a danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender.” He says, “until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we’re going to continue to harm this society.” Is there a danger of divisiveness when we focus on black leadership?
SELLERS: There is a danger. I do think that African American leadership, they must advance an agenda, and my agenda is the agenda of the have-nots. But what you'll realize is that classification of have-nots encompasses the African American community as a whole, but not solely the African American community and a lot of times, especially in my district. I concur with that and I think that is a dangerous step to take and I think that it’s time that we have transformative leaders that look towards the future and I think a lot of times in my generation with Alisha Thomas Morgan and with Andrew Gillum and even with Michael Julian Bond, I mean, you have a leaders that look to be societal leaders who are not quite as their fathers were or grandfathers were and they’re not quite as the leaders were who are the reason that they’re here now. But that is the same with every generation, and with every generation within a movement, you have to change focus. You have to switch. If you don’t, then you’ll lose.
BOND: Do you agree with the characterization of you by Gwen Ifill in her book, Breakthrough, that you are a part of a breakthrough generation?
SELLERS: Yes. I think that we are a breakthrough generation, but I don’t want that to be misconstrued as we’re a generation that stands on our own. We’re a generation that stands on the shoulders of those that come before us, but we’re a breakthrough in terms of the thought. It’s a different — our goal is to change, for example, just the black and white goal. My goal is not to end segregation and Jim Crow. My goal is so that every person, no matter their race, creed or color, has access to quality education because now we have blacks and whites, thanks to Brown, who go to the same school but the school is still poor and struggling, so my goal is to uplift that school as a whole.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
SELLERS: An example — I go to prisons a lot and I talk to people who look just like me. I’m twenty-five years old. I represent people in court who look just like me who come in the office and look just like me, so my greatest accomplishment is being an example and being a good example. That’s something I have to deal with, though, which bothered me a little bit when I first got elected because you live in a fishbowl now when you become an elected official and people always, they hold you to a higher standard than they hold themselves, which is fair. But people watch every single thing that you do. They try to interpret everything that you do and you try to be that good example and try not to have any missteps which is hard when you’re twenty-two or twenty-three or twenty-four.
BOND: But you can do it?
BOND: In his book, Race Matters, Cornel West writes, “The crisis of leadership is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle.” Do you see a crisis in leadership in black communities? Today, earlier, you talked about your disappointment at the quality of people in public office but in the larger community, in addition to public office, if this is so, what is the reason for this?
SELLERS: It’s a disconnect from struggle, from struggle that’s not that far away. It’s a disconnect from reality and you find that in some of our state and local NAACP chapters. You find that in our black churches. You find that in our African American leadership. You find political leadership. You find a disconnect from what got us this far. I mean, I was reading a Washington Post Magazine. I think they do a little magazine, maybe on the weekends. It was a while ago. It was when I was working on Capitol Hill when Condoleezza Rice said that she would’ve still been where she is regardless of the civil rights movement. And you have persons who just may not know of the intricacies of the civil rights movement. You may have people who just know of Malcolm, Martin, and Rosa, and that’s unfortunate.
BOND: What is it about the current crop of black elected officials that displeased you?
SELLERS: I expected us all to have this undying sense of purpose, this energy to create change. What I found, that that sense of purpose was replaced by apathy. We have people who don’t speak out or up for anything. We have people that don’t file any legislation if you paid them to. We have people who just show up and sit, and I think they’re doing a disservice to their constituents, no matter be they white for their constituents, whether or not their constituency is predominantly white or black. I think they’re doing a disservice because I think they have to represent very well so that there can be another African American after them to sit in that same seat.
BOND: Couldn’t they argue with you that one of the hopes of the civil rights movement was that even mediocre people could have their chance in the sun?
SELLERS: Well, maybe this goes back to Morehouse, but I don’t believe in mediocrity.
BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand? How will future problems demand different leadership styles?
SELLERS: We have so many problems now that I think that the gamut is open, that we can — I mean, we can use a variety of leadership styles, whether or not you’re talking about global issues and what are we doing — what do we do with Israel? I mean, what we do with —
BOND: How can we create the most effective leaders for the future? Can you make leaders or do leaders have to sort of grow and become?
SELLERS: You can’t make a leader. I don’t think that that’s possible. But I do think that we can provide the resources and the outlets for persons who may have that in them to become better leaders. I think that we can teach people and we can help mold individuals. You have that leadership skill set coming along. I mean, you have that, but you just have to be molded and I think my life lessons have helped mold me. The scholarship I received at Morehouse and just the persons I was able to be around have helped mold me, so as long as you have those outlets and resources, I think you will have leaders that are prepared for the future. Now, am I the leader that will help, you know, remedy the conflict between Palestine and Israel? I don’t know. I doubt it, very seriously. Am I the leader that can get us out of Afghanistan? I’m not sure. Can I solve the problem in Georgia and Russia? I doubt it, but I do believe that I am the person that can help those who don’t have access in Bamberg, Barnwell, and Orangeburg County, gain access, and I am the leader. I believe that I am the leader that can move South Carolina out of the doldrums of poverty and missteps on the global and national forum to a future of prosperity. I do believe I can do that.
BOND: Let me ask you something about your engagement with AIPAC, not so much what it does and is, but — well, tell us what it is and how you became involved in it and what this has meant to your development as a leader.
SELLERS: Well, I got a phone call the summer after I got elected, the summer of 2004, inviting me to a policy conference where there were —
BOND: The summer you got elected —
SELLERS: To the SGA presidency.
BOND: At Morehouse.
SELLERS: The summer of 2004, inviting me to their national policy conference and they were inviting SGA presidents and they were reaching out to HBCU presidents. And they invited four HBCU presidents, but the only ones that responded were myself from Morehouse College and Adeola Adejobi who was the SGA president at Spelman and we went and the only other African American SGA president was from the University of Florida. I can’t recall his name. But it might have been ten black people at the whole conference of 7,500 and I remember one moment that they had the roll call, but I was just so enthralled that we went to this huge dinner that they have and every member of Congress, or at least 75 percent of them, were there and I got to see Steny Hoyer again who has the best hair in Congress and, you know, I got a chance to see Condoleezza Rice and see George Bush. And the unique thing is they had this huge role call where they notified and they let the crowd know who was there and they let them know the SGA presidents they had there, but they left out the only two HBCU presidents they had. I didn’t even recognize it, but afterwards, the staff, the executive direction of this huge organization, came and apologized and said, “We’ll make it up to you.” And I was like, “You know, don’t worry about, I don’t care.”
So the next morning we’re sitting in a huge forum waiting on the president, at that time, George Bush, to speak, and after they introduced the president, they had a pause and they said, “We would also like to recognize” — as President Bush stand and wait — “We would like to recognize the SGA president from Morehouse College and Spelman College, Bakari Sellers and Adeola Adejobi. May they please stand.” So that attention to detail and we made President Bush wait even just for that moment. It meant a great deal.
But from the 50,000-foot view, it’s expanded my world horizons and I challenge them on issues. I challenge them on issues dealing with Palestine and the way that they treat the Palestinian government and the way — and their aggressiveness towards the Palestinian government. And I say that there are — and their aggressiveness as they move forward or refuse to move back in terms of some of their settlements and things of that nature, so we do challenge each other and we do have great discussions. But I also go back and I think that the Jewish community was there most times, many times, hand-in-hand with the African American community during the civil rights movement, and that’s very interesting to me.
And for me, my role in AIPAC is one of a learning experience. And every time that I interact with a staff member or every time I interact at a convention, I try to learn as much as possible, so that’s pretty much the extent of my dealings with AIPAC, but it’s been interesting. And I love when I’m able to challenge them and they’re able to provide me with opportunities to learn.
BOND: What has being involved in this organization which has this large international focus done to broaden your own horizons?
SELLERS: Well, I could not tell you —
BOND: Was this something you thought about a great deal before you were approached?
SELLERS: Well, no. It’s not something I thought about, but I was reading books and attempting to expand my worldview because I felt as if that may be important if I was going to pursue some type of career in politics and it’s like the opportunity just knocked on my door. So I had to take it and it was an opportunity that provided me the resources to learn. I can’t devalue that or underestimate that because I was able to learn so much and have been able to learn so much over the past seven or eight years and they’ve been trying to get me to go to Israel, but things just have never worked out. My mom was either having knee surgery or I had to be in court or something like that, but — and I want to go. I mean, I think everyone should just sit back and try to learn about other cultures. I think that’s so important. I think that’s something we don’t do enough of.
And I’m familiar with other organizations that have sprouted out, sprouted up about various issues and I don’t have any opinion one way or another about these other organizations, but I do appreciate the relationship that America has with Israel, and I try to learn as much as possible about that relationship.
BOND: A few questions ago, we talked about race consciousness and then separately you talked about your disappointment with black elected officials. And there seems to be a contradiction between your answers to the two questions. On the one hand, not race-specific in your politics. On the other hand, race-specific in your disdain or dislike, I should say, of some of the behavior you see around you. How do balance these two?
SELLERS: I’m still an African American male and I’m very conscious of how I got here. I mean, I’m very conscious of the struggles and the sacrifices that people had to make. I mean, I’m very aware of Emmett Till. I’m very aware of Medgar Evers. I mean, my father can’t talk about Emmett Till without crying. I mean, that’s very real to me, but I also think that gives me the ability to challenge the leadership within our community. I think my background and the fact that I know people who have given up so much for the rights that we have and the right to be an elected official that I believe that I have the right, whether or not it’s true or false, but I believe that I have that right to challenge them and that’s what I’m doing.
I think that I want to challenge the NAACP. I want to challenge the black church. I want to challenge black elected officials to go back and be what they once were. But I also think that — I don’t think that it’s contradictory because I think the struggle has changed and I think I’m challenging them to adapt to a new struggle, because the struggle is no longer black and white. It’s the haves and the have-nots, so I think I’m very conscious of who I am and what I am, and I think because I recognize that the struggle has changed does not mean that I’m contradictory. I just recognize that and I’m challenging these other persons to recognize that as well.
BOND: Isn’t it true that the have-nots whom you represent [are] more black proportionately than white in our society? Doesn’t that suggest that this group of people cry out for special attention? I’m not talking about affirmative action. Special attention?
SELLERS: No. I think that the have-nots are both black and white, and I think that if you’re black in my district and you’re white in my district, but you’re poor, you have the same problems. So I’m not going to say I’m going to help out this poor black person but not help out this poor white person. That’s idiotic to me. But what I am going to do is I am going to help out those who have that — you know, the fact that their kids go to school in trailers. I mean, I’m not going to help out a black kid and not a white kid because the kids both go to school in trailers. Or their grandparents have to make the decision about whether or not they pay their utilities or get their prescription drugs. These are very real decisions. Or there’s no economic development in that community so the black kids and white blacks, once they graduate from high school, there’s nothing for them to do so they have to go to the military. I mean, these are problems that, yes, there is a direct correlation between the have-nots and the African American community, but I think if I empower us all, then the ships will both rise.
BOND: Representative Sellers, thanks for being with us.
SELLERS: Thank you for having me.