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“My Vanishing Country”: Mass Protests Rise from 400 Years of Systemic Racism, Says Bakari Sellers

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As mass unrest engulfs the U.S., we speak with attorney and political commentator Bakari Sellers, whose new memoir “My Vanishing Country” was just published. One of the central moments in the book is the Orangeburg massacre of 1968, when police opened fire on a crowd of students gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University to protest segregation at Orangeburg’s only bowling alley. When the shooting stopped, three Black students were dead, 28 students were wounded. The nine officers who opened fire that day were all acquitted. The only person convicted of wrongdoing was Bakari Sellers’s father, Cleveland Sellers, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. He was convicted of a riot charge and spent seven months behind bars. He was pardoned in 1993. We speak with Bakari Sellers about Orangeburg, 2020 and “400 years of systemic racism” in the U.S.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Bakari Sellers into the conversation. In 2006, he became the youngest African American statewide elected official in the country when he was elected to the South Carolina state Legislature. Well, he has his memoir out; it’s called My Vanishing Country. And one of the central moments in the book is the Orangeburg massacre of 1968, one of the most violent, least remembered events of the civil rights movement. A crowd of students gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University to protest segregation at Orangeburg’s only bowling alley. Dozens of police arrived on the scene. State troopers, they fired live ammunition into the crowd. When the shooting stopped, three Black students were dead, 28 students wounded. Nine officers who opened fire were all acquitted. But there was one person who went to jail. It was Bakari Sellers’ father, Cleveland Sellers, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, convicted of a riot charge and actually spent seven months behind bars. He was pardoned decades later.

Bakari Sellers, it’s an honor to have you with us. You say that February 8th was the most important day of your life, but you weren’t even born yet. Talk about the connections to what was happening then to what’s happening today in this country.

BAKARI SELLERS: First, thank you for having me on such an august and esteemed panel here this morning.

February 8th, 1968, is by far the most important day of my life. Not only did law enforcement shoot into a crowd, killing Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton. Not only did they shoot my father. Not only was he the only person who was incarcerated. But there has been trauma that’s lingered since then. My sister was born while my father was still locked away. The first time that my father was able to see my sister was actually on the prison yard.

But when I think about George Floyd, where we are today, and I think about Ahmaud Arbery and I think about Breonna Taylor, it just goes back even further. You know, my father got started in the movement, and I think Dr. West will acknowledge that the names that he mentioned — the Ella Bakers, the Fannie Lou Hamers — they were all a part of what we call the Emmitt Till generation, in 1955, when that picture was in Ebony magazine, and the whole world was able to see that image of what racism and bigotry and hate had done to young Emmitt Till. But you think about Emmett. You think about Jimmie Lee Jackson. You think about Medgar Evers. You think about not just the Orangeburg massacre, but the four little girls in Birmingham. And the list goes on and on and on.

And my father is 75 years old today. I’m 35 years old. And the biggest problem we have in this country is that we have many of the same shared experiences. In My Vanishing Country, I not only talk about Orangeburg and, you know, some of the successes I’ve had, but I’ve also talked about the fact that I’ve had to bury good friends, one of which was Clementa Pinckney, who was the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church, who was killed after Bible study with eight others just because of the color of his skin. That’s the country that we live in. And what you’re seeing today is not just about George Floyd. I don’t want anybody to think that. What we’re seeing today is about systemic injustice and systemic racism that’s plagued this country for 400 years.

And just to harp on Brother West’s point for a second, just to drive it home, and one of the things I highlight in My Vanishing Country, I’m from Denmark, South Carolina, where we have three stoplights and a blinking light. And I grew up in a food desert, meaning that you couldn’t go two to three miles and get fresh fruits and vegetables, meaning that you probably have a higher propensity to have things like diabetes. We’re drinking dirty water where I’m from, which means that you are taking in toxins that are likely to cause cancer at higher rates; inhaling dirty air because of Brownfields and the manufacturing plants, meaning that you’re more likely to have asthma. Because we didn’t expand Medicaid, my hospital shut down. We live along what’s called the “corridor of shame,” in which kids go to school, and their heating and air don’t work, and their infrastructure is falling apart. These are the systemic injustices and systemic racism that we’re highlighting and talking about. And then you overlay that with the pandemic, and it’s no question that — my father says it all the time — when America gets a cold, Black folk get the flu. Well, now America has COVID, and Black folk are dying.

And then you think about the bodies, this Black, violent killing porn that we are obsessed with in this country. We have George Floyd who was killed like a dog. Let me not even say “like a dog,” because if he was a dog, they actually would have arrested all four officers by now. But there was a knee to the back of his neck for eight to nine minutes. And I think that there are so many people, including myself, who were questioning, as the parents of Black children in this country, “How do we go about raising them? What do we tell them?” These are questions in a crisis of conscience that is now facing the United States of America.

And so, I hope people, if they pick up My Vanishing Country, Black folk get a sense of pride, but I hope white folk get a sense of understanding, because before you can get to atonement — and Black folk are always in a position in this country of forgiving, but before we can even get to that point, we have to have understanding. We have to have empathy.

And the last thing I’ll tell you, Amy, is, from Orangeburg to Charleston, all the way back to Emmett, to now George, the common link, linchpin, is this: The people of color in this country and around the world are not given the benefit of their humanity. You cannot tell me that those officers saw George Floyd as being human. They saw him as something less than. And so, until we start fundamentally giving Black folk the benefit of their humanity, we will still have these systemic problems that are now boiled over into the streets. Do not tell my people to go home, do not ask for peace, until you are also asking for justice. Justice has to become a verb in this country, not just a noun.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. That’s Bakari Sellers, former state legislator in South Carolina, now author of his memoir. It’s called My Vanishing Country, released during the pandemic. Dr. Cornel West is with us from Harvard University, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University, speaking to us from Philadelphia, one of the cities where people rose up over the last week. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with all in a minute.

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