A child of the civil rights movement, a trial lawyer and the youngest individual ever to be elected to the South Carolina Legislature — as well as the youngest African American elected official anywhere in the nation, Bakari Sellers has known great personal loss and earned historic public victories. On this SoundAffect, Megan Hayes speaks with Bakari about cancel culture, the most valuable currency, relationships and being bipartisan but still getting the votes.
Megan Hayes: A self-described country boy from South Carolina, Bakari Sellers is the son of educators, Gwendolyn Sellers, and civil rights activist, Cleveland Sellers. He grew up under the influence of legends of the civil rights movement, including Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael. At 22 years old, he made history when after graduating from Morehouse College and while enrolled in law school at the University of South Carolina, he became youngest member of the South Carolina State Legislature, and the youngest African American elected official in the nation.
Megan Hayes: In 2014, he won the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant governor in South Carolina. Bakari Sellers has worked for Congressman James Clyburn and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. And he served on President Barack Obama's South Carolina steering committee during the 2008 election. He has been named to Time magazines 40 under 40 in 2010, as well as the route 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans in 2014. Bakari Sellers currently practices law in Columbia, South Carolina, where he heads strategic communications and public affairs team for the Strom Law Firm LLC, and has recently added diversity, equity and inclusion consulting to the list of his services offered.
Megan Hayes: He has provided political and social commentary and analysis on many major national news outlets and is a prominent political contributor for CNN. His memoir, My Vanishing Country, was published last May and he's a New York Times best seller. Bakari Sellers is on our campus as the featured speaker for App State's 37th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bakari Sellers, welcome to Appalachian State University and welcome to SoundAffect.
Bakari Sellers: Hey, I'm glad to be here. Thank you. That was a great intro.
Megan Hayes: Well, thank you. And think the weather's a little better than the last time we tried to bring you here.
Bakari Sellers: So yes, that was it. It snowed and snowed and snowed. And although I am a country boy, the snow is not my friend. I'm glad that it is clear out there. Although it's really hilly out there. I got a workout walking around this campus.
Megan Hayes: Yes, We call it the High Country. And I think you say you're from the Low Country.
Bakari Sellers: I'm from the Low Country. Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you for having me.
Megan Hayes: Well, we're really glad to have you here. And I'd like to begin by asking you to share a bit more about your background. In your book, you describe how in many ways you are defined by the Orangeburg massacre, the first deadly confrontation between university students and law enforcement in the United States history. Can you talk about the influence of this event on just the decisions you made early in your career?
Bakari Sellers: Well, yeah, I mean, I look at it as being the most important day of my life truly. The way that I look at life socially, culturally, politically is through the lens of the movement and that speaks to me as probably the most impactful day. My father was shot and imprisoned. You had three people who lost their lives, but between that and the Charleston massacre in 2015 where I lost my good friend Clem to a racist killer, Dylann Roof, murdering nine people in a church. I say my life has been book end by tragedy, and I highlight those two tragedies as a point that I still live with that pain, but try to truly understand and dissect the role that race plays in society and continue to live for those who can't live for themselves any longer, whose lives will cut short because of that type of violence. It's a heavy burden to bear but one I carry with pride, I believe.
Megan Hayes: Do you see differences between how you respond or how you responded to that influence in your life when you were in your twenties and now?
Bakari Sellers: No, I mean, the answer to the question is no, because it is so ... it's always so heavy, and I've felt that heaviness in my heart since when we first started going over to South Carolina State on February 8th and my dad would pick me up from school and we'd go to the memorials. It's just a really, really heavy feeling. So I don't know if there's any difference in the last 10 years or 20 years of my life in the way that I carry that history with me. But I think that I utilize it. I said in the book that I think that I have a larger chip on my shoulder than my father does from those incidents. I'm reminded that he could have lashed out with righteous anger, but he chose to believe in what Lincoln calls the better angels of our nature. As I'm as I go through this maturation process, I try to let go of some of that. Unburden myself is probably the better term of some of that. Not quite hate that I have, but resentment that I have and live a freer life. It's just difficult.
Megan Hayes: So it's certainly no secret that you're considered a rising star in the Democratic party. And I'd like to ask you about your experience in reaching across the aisle to effect change within an established political system. I would imagine that this work takes time and patience. Is that frustrating or was that frustrating for you? Or was it rewarding or maybe some of both?
Bakari Sellers: No, it wasn't frustrating. I mean, I think that when you get into politics, you have to have some element...first of all, you can't be an introvert. That's not the job, not the career path for you. But there was some feeling of reward even from building the relationships. I'm someone who always am reminded that the most valuable currency we have is relationships. It's superior to the dollar. The dollar's a close second, but it's relationships that are the most valuable. And you learn how to meet people where they are, and you learn how to build those relationships which help you become effective when you're trying to legislate. When you're a young black Democrat, and you're a young black Democrat in South Carolina, you are compelled to find ways in which you can find some common ground to be successful. So it's a necessity.
Bakari Sellers: When I first got elected in 2006 and which was pre-Barack Obama, you had very small Republican majorities. By the time I left in 2014, you had super majorities where they didn't need you for anything. So if there was any frustration, it was probably that frustration, because it's easy to be bipartisan and go and get four votes. It's a different animal to go get 34 votes.
Megan Hayes: Right. Yeah. Obviously that was a learning experience for you. And it sounds like you were pretty patient going into it, but do you feel like you have more patience now or less patience?
Bakari Sellers: I definitely have more patience than I did then. I wasn't someone who believed in incrementalism, but I understand the value thereof. I'm not ready to, you know. What's the quote? I always screw it up, but you don't want to throw out. So anyway, I can't ...
Megan Hayes: Never let the perfection be the enemy of the good.
Bakari Sellers: There you go. You got it. Anyway, I've learned that incrementalism, if we're going in the right direction, will get you there eventually. And that helps me with my resolve to continue to try to fight to get things done.
Megan Hayes: So what surprised you most entering the South Carolina Legislature as a young politician?
Bakari Sellers: How worthless a lot of politicians are. I really thought that there was this uniformity in service. Because, I mean, you literally have to choose to do it and put your name on a ballot, and then go out and run an election and have people vote for you. It's a cumbersome process to get there. And there were a lot of people who were there just to be there. Democrats and Republicans, black and white. I could never wrap my head around the fact that you were just there to be there. I always laugh and joke with folk and say, when I first got elected, I would look up at the ceiling. I'd be like, I cannot to leave I'm here. And then after about a month, I'd be like, I can't believe you're here. I can't believe you're here. So that was probably my biggest disappointment was just the absence of public service oriented people.
Megan Hayes: Do you think that was from a sense of complacency or entitlement or where do think it came from?
Bakari Sellers: All of the above. And the fact that we don't pay our elected officials enough, which is a random unpopular view. I mean, in South Carolina, our salary was $10,600 a year. I mean, it still is. I mean, you pay for what you get in a lot of places. It's hard too. That's why ... Not disparaging the professions, but many times we got retired folk, trial lawyers like myself, people who could afford to do it because you can't have someone who is a teacher or someone who is a plant worker or someone who is a fireman do that and then come serve in this part-time job, which is really a full-time job for $10,600 a year. Just it's not feasible.
Megan Hayes: Do you think the political landscape is more or less divisive than it was in 1968 when your father was arrested?
Bakari Sellers: That's an interesting question. I didn't think you were going to go back to '68. I thought you were going to go to 2006 when I got elected. The answer is the answer is ... The answer is ... I don't know the answer to that. Is it more or less divisive? It's about the same, which is a tragedy, I think. I think that we began to rip at the seams January 20, 2009, which was the inauguration of Barack Obama. I think that the advent of the Tea Party in 2020, the issues we had with race in this country came to the forefront. They became more pronounced recently and I think that's eerily reminiscent of 1968.
Bakari Sellers: I mean, we have to remember, and I am very clear eyed about this and very sober about the fact that every ounce of political change we've ever had in this country has been because of black blood that's flowed in the streets. When you think about that sentiment, you think that in the 60s, but for the images of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the death of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till in the mid-50s. You don't have the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But for the assassination of King, you don't have the Fair Housing Act. And we've seen those similar occurrences. And I thought after the very, very hot summer where Ahmaud, Breonna and George were murdered, you would get to a point where we were having these conversations about race that proved to be fruitful, but I think that might have been youthful naivete and I was wrong.
Megan Hayes: Wow. So you talked a little bit about relationships earlier and you built a lot of success by fostering relationships that were built by your parents. I think that's something that ... I think that's something that maybe a lot of people that grew up without means probably have done and maybe people with means too. I don't know. But can you speak to the new relationships that you build? And one in particular that I was thinking about when writing this question was your, and you speak of her as a friend, your friendship with, with Nikki Haley.
Bakari Sellers: Yeah. I mean, Nikki, I think she's mad with me right now, but-
Megan Hayes: You can get mad with your friends.
Bakari Sellers: I know. She always gets mad at me about a tweet or something. Nikki Haley, Tim Scott. I mean, this is ... it's South Carolina. We, we have some really interesting bed fellows in South Carolina. Lindsey. When I call on them, they are inclined to be helpful if they can, but I understand the politics is very rough and tumble, but also, I know them. I know them to the point where I disagree with them wholeheartedly on policy ideals, but I think I was in the Washington Post magazine, and they were doing a profile on Tim and I said the interesting part about my relationship with Tim is that I will never vote for Tim Scott, but if he needed a kidney, I'd give him one. And I know that's decently hyperbolic to some but ... or sensationalized is probably a better term, but I think that's where we need to get back to in terms of our political discourse. Where you can disagree with folk and still maintain relationships.
Megan Hayes: Yeah. I've certainly been feeling a lot of that lately. I think so. And so along those lines, I want to talk with you about the importance of making mistakes. On a college campus, I think it's important to create a space where people can make mistakes and then learn from them and recover from them importantly, and hopefully do that with some grace. Although I'm not sure I have much grace in the mistakes I was making when I was in college. But I had the privilege of speaking with Julian Bond about this in 2015. I was wondering if I could play his response to my not very well asked question, and then get your response or your reaction to it.
Bakari Sellers: It'd be good to hear I'll Uncle Julian's voice.
Megan Hayes: There's a part of me that wonders if just trying to create an environment where it's safe to stumble and fall a little bit. It's safe to mess up.Julian Bond: Yes, Yes, yes. He has to be ready to make a mistake, and get pick up and go ahead and do it again.
Megan Hayes: In 2015, it seemed hard, I think, to find that space for recovery, but there's a part of me that thinks it may even be harder now.
Bakari Sellers: It is harder now. By the way, you were really, really, really youthful in your voice. It's like, what's 16-year-old is asking this question?
Megan Hayes: Well, let's not talk about how I sound on there.
Bakari Sellers: So yeah. I think that first of all, I don't necessarily believe in cancel culture. I think that's a myth perpetrated by a lot of my friends in the media. I think there's such thing as consequences. You can say something extremely stupid, racist, xenophobic. You have the freedom to say it. We also have the freedom to..., So you free from consequence. So that's first. But I don't think we allow for forgiveness and grace and people to evolve and learn. I think that sometimes when somebody does something stupid or ignorant, when you look at it's not necessarily the country music singer who says nigger all the time. Right? That's not necessarily what I'm talking about, but I am talking about when clips emerge from somebody talking 15 years ago and you want to cancel them today.
Bakari Sellers: I'm like, well, let's look at what happened over the last 15 years. Let's apply some grace through the lens that we're looking, and let's see how much they've evolved. I mean, if they're the same that they were when they said it, then that's one thing. None of a us are the same person we were 15 years ago, and I think that we have to show people the same grace. And that's the two points I made. That's part of the problem we have right now is that people want grace, but they don't want to give it. And then the other is, and it's a political lesson, I guess. And it's something I tell people who want to get involved in the political process, which is being a pastor and a politician are the only two professions where people expect more from you than they expect from themselves. You have to understand that going into it. And so many times in politics, there is a higher bar, a threshold, regardless though we should all give people some grace and allow people to be forgiven for transgressions.
Megan Hayes: Bakari Sellers, I have one more question for you.
Bakari Sellers: Sure.
Megan Hayes: But before I ask you, I want to thank you for your time with me here today. You didn't have to do this. I appreciate you stopping in.
Bakari Sellers: I'm glad to do this. This is amazing. I'm all about podcasting united. Everybody, all the podcasters across the world need to come together and form a super group. I appreciate what you do here.
Megan Hayes: Well, thank you very much. And your next step is to speak before an audience of students who are not much younger than you were when you ran for office and landed a seat in the South Carolina Legislature. It's really incredible to think about. You were hopeful then, excited about the future and the change that you could bring. Can you talk about what gives you hope now?
Bakari Sellers: My children. Looking at Sadie and Stokely at three years old. Whenever you get down, you see that you have to live for them. It's a different type of love. It's a different type of heart flutter. It's a different type of anxiety and worry. And you just want to make sure that you are leaving them a better world than the one you inherited. And as we sit here today, you realize that you got a lot of work to do, and maybe in their generation, maybe one day they'll be free.
Megan Hayes: Well, thank you so much for your time, sir. I certainly appreciate you being here, and I hope that the rest of your stay is great.
Bakari Sellers: No, thank you for your preparedness and thoroughness in this interview. That's amazing. And it was good to hear Uncle Julian's voice. For sure.
Megan Hayes: Yeah. Well, when I read your book and actually I listened to it, so it was really great to hear your voice. I had a really good time doing that, and I thought, wow, this is an opportunity to ... That was really an incredible moment for me to speak with him.
Bakari Sellers: He's an amazing person. All right. Thank you so much.
Megan Hayes: And as are you. Thank you so much.
Bakari Sellers: I'm working at it. All right.
Megan Hayes: Appreciate you.
What do you think?
Share your feedback on this story.
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the Southeast, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls nearly 21,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.