Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness: Adapting to Contemporary Struggles

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.