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“We Still Don’t Have Justice”: Bakari Sellers on Enduring Systemic Racism & Healthcare Disparities

Web ExclusiveJune 01, 2020
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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,” includes the story of what happened to his father during the Orangeburg massacre of 1968, when police opened fire on a crowd of students at South Carolina State University who were protesting segregation. Sellers recounts the United States’ long history of systemic racism, and the racial disparities that have endured and made COVID-19 disproportionately deadly for Black Americans. “White folk in this country have to be willing to read, listen and understand about this experience of being Black in this country,” Sellers says. “That is the way we begin to have difficult but necessary decisions about how we heal and come together.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. We’re joined by attorney Bakari Sellers. In 2006, he became the youngest African American statewide elected official in the country when he was elected to the South Carolina state Legislature. He has just written his memoir; it’s called My Vanishing Country.

One of the central moments in the book is the Orangeburg massacre of 1968, one of the most violent and 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 opened fire on the crowd. 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’ father, Cleveland Sellers, a well-known member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. He was convicted of a riot charge and spent seven months behind bars. He would be pardoned decades later. In this excerpt of the documentary Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, Cleveland Sellers explains how he was charged

CLEVELAND SELLERS: From all that I had seen in my prior experiences in civil rights, that there was a conspiracy to target the Black Power advocate — that would be me — and to create the kind of event that would be tied to me in a way that I would be arrested and charged. … Black Power was not about violence. Black Power was about the empowering of the African American community to run for office and be elected into office.

AMY GOODMAN: And then I wanted to go to Cleveland Sellers speaking on Democracy Now!

CLEVELAND SELLERS: It was just a clear case of the police opening fire without any provocation. There was no exchange of gunfire. The students were unarmed. And what precipitated it was the fact that the students on that Monday night went down to the bowling alley to try to bowl. And on Tuesday night when they went down, they were arrested. And at that point, you know, the state had kind of in mind a kind of Watts riot, and so they began to gear up. And on the night of February the 8th, it probably was 300 law enforcement officers in Orangeburg, and that included the FBI and Army Intelligence and the National Guards, the local and state police. So it was kind of an armed camp there. There were so many police that they could actually have walked on the campus and arrested every student on the campus, one officer could have gone over and arrested all the students around the campus.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Cleve Sellers on Democracy Now! on the 40th anniversary of the Orangeburg massacre. And now 12 years later, his son Bakari Sellers joins us. This story is central to his new book, My Vanishing Country, and also, of course, to his life.

In Part 1 of our conversation, Bakari, you said the date of that massacre is the most significant one in your life, and you weren’t even born yet.

BAKARI SELLERS: Yes. You know, just hearing the pain in father’s voice — I wrote in My Vanishing Country, sometimes when you write, you go back and you read the words on the page, and they stick out. My father used to always tell me, and I wrote it, that heroes walk among us. And listening to the pain in my father’s voice, I just think back to the fact that his eyes don’t pop like they used to, from shedding so many tears from so many loved ones lost throughout the struggle, and his shoulders don’t stand as upright as they once did, from carrying the burdens of so many generations. And February 8th was a day in which we lost Henry Smith, we lost Samuel Hammond, we lost Delano Middleton, none older than the age of 19. And we lost them due to law enforcement, law enforcement fire.

And, you know, we’re still living in that same vein today. We are still experiencing those same things today with the loss of Ahmaud Arbery, with the loss of Breonna Taylor, with the loss of George Floyd. And so, that is the — the reason that I still have a great deal of pain in my heart, probably even more so than my father, is that we’ve never truly understood what justice in that scenario meant in Orangeburg, and we still don’t have justice today.

AMY GOODMAN: And your mother was pregnant with your sister when your father went to prison?

BAKARI SELLERS: Yes. So, you know, my sister — all of our names are Swahili. Bakari means noble promise. My sister’s middle name is Abidemi. It means born while father is away.

And there’s a great picture, Amy. You’ll love this. They’re sitting in Broad River Correctional Institution. They’re sitting on the yard, and they have another inmate take those Polaroid pictures that you just kind of wave to actually add the image. And my mom is sitting there with a huge Afro, and my dad has a huge Afro next to her. And it’s the first time that he’s seeing Nosizwe, who’s my sister. And you can just see the glow in his eyes, and my mom is just sitting there just smiling away. And they snap a picture. It was in 1973.

My father served seven months of hard labor. He was sentenced to a year. He got out for good behavior. And he never came back to South Carolina until both of his parents died, and we moved back here in 1990. The irony in this whole thing is that my father was put in prison by Governor McNair, a Democrat at the time, and he was pardoned by Carroll Campbell, a Republican at the time. And so, I say that to say that partisanship is not a clear indicator of justice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bakari Sellers, one of the other things that you talk about in the book are the racial disparities in healthcare and their endurance, as, you know, has been witnessed in this COVID pandemic. Could you talk about how specifically that occurred in your community in South Carolina, and what people should understand about the persistence of this disparity, the health disparity, and the impact on communities who are affected?

BAKARI SELLERS: So, yeah, I talk about it through my personal experience. And the first is the fact that we lost our hospital in 2010 in Bamberg County. And people just don’t know fully that when you lose a hospital, it’s not just about healthcare. It’s about all the economic activity that goes on around it — the florist shops, the small businesses, the restaurants, the pharmacies, everything. Not only is it one of the largest employers in the area, but it also creates other economic activity. And so, we lost that. We lost all of that. And so, growing up, you know, we had — if you had a heart attack, you had to go 30 to 45 minutes to the nearest hospital. That’s a death sentence.

You know, I look at it through the lens of the fact that my wife, just last year — it was a very difficult year for us, and I discuss it in the book. On January 7th, she gave birth to our twins. At 5:28, my daughter was born; at 5:33, my son was born — oh, inversely, at 5:28, my son was born; at 5:33, my daughter was born. By about 10:00 or 11:00 that night, my wife had passed out. She was throwing up. She had begun to hemorrhage about seven units of blood. My wife almost didn’t make it. I had to begin to say those prayers that we say in college all the time, the “Dear Lord, if you get me through this situation, I promise I will not do X.” And we — in the book, I overlay the politics of it, because it’s so true. African American female mortality is one of the most critical issues we have in this country, especially when it comes to Black women. They’re four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts. Most of it has to do with the implicit biases. And so, during that opportunity, I had to lift up her voice and be a champion, while she displayed so much strength in persevering and being here today. So, that’s the second instance.

And the third instance is, two months later, my daughter was diagnosed with biliary atresia at 2 months old, which is a very rare liver disorder, and she was placed on the transplant waiting list for 93 days. I tell people that each day is is something that I don’t wish upon any parent in the world. You’re watching your daughter literally die before you each day. She was really skinny, had a big belly. She was yellow. But the only thing that she did consistently, as she does today, was always smile. She’s a very happy personality. And then, on September 1st, she got the gift of life. And we experienced the fact that if we didn’t have any means, we wouldn’t have access. We experienced a broken transplant system.

And so, when you talk about access to care, when you talk about implicit biases and African American female mortality, and then you talk about a broken transplant system, those are three ways that, even at 35 years old, I’ve been intimately involved with a broken healthcare system. And although I’m blessed and fortunate enough, similar to what Brother West has been saying earlier in segments, that we have to be willing to speak up and speak out courageously for the least of these. And that is something that I hope I’m able to accomplish throughout my lifetime, ensuring people have access to care.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about taking your “vanishing country” further. First, why you chose that title?

BAKARI SELLERS: That’s a good question. You know, coming up in the poor, rural South, what used to be bastions for economic growth in small towns, due to CAFTA and NAFTA, due to forgotten politics, you just see these communities just dwindling and going away. So, that’s first and foremost. They’re vanishing right before our eyes.

The second thing is this country’s promises, the promises that it’s supposed to live up to, of not just life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but also justice, freedom, peace and love. These ideals are vanishing for many of us. You cannot tell me that if you’re poor in this country, that if you’re Black in this country, if you’re an immigrant in this country, you have the same access to those not so tangible ideals, and so it’s vanishing before our eyes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to just read a list, a partial, partial list, that is very familiar, whether we’re talking about Amadou Diallo or Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, now George Floyd. Let’s add Reverend Clementa Pinckney, because we’re talking about systemic racism. So many of these people died at the hands of the state, of police. Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, was interviewed this weekend — President Trump’s NSA. And he said, “We are not talking about systemic racism here.” And I would like to get your response, Bakari Sellers.

BAKARI SELLERS: So, the way I define racism is the words of my uncle, Stokely Carmichael, that if you want to lynch me, that’s your problem, but if you have the power to lynch me, then that’s my problem.

And so, we’re seeing us being lynched on the streets. We’re not talking about someone calling us “nigger.” We’re talking about systems of injustice and oppression. We’re talking about environmental injustice, where Flint still doesn’t have clean water. We’re talking about educational injustice, because kids in this country are punished because of the ZIP code they’re born into; healthcare injustice, as I just outlined, in lack of access to quality care.

And all of these injustices are systematic. They’re not just one individual or a part of one person’s feelings towards another. Instead, they’re codified. Instead, they are pervasive throughout. And I’m not sure that the NSA adviser actually knew what he was talking about, to be completely honest.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bakari Sellers, before we conclude, I mean, one of the things that you talk about in the book is your own anxiety as an effect of these kinds of racist policies in the U.S. and racist behavior by so many people in the U.S. So could you talk about that, your own experience with anxiety?

BAKARI SELLERS: Sure. I mean, being Black in this country is a perpetual sense of grief and grieving. And so, not just my personal experience in growing up the son of the movement, but just thinking about how to raise Black children. And I wanted to come out and talk about my anxiety, because for many Black men, that’s taboo. That’s something we don’t discuss. Many times, we only think that the only person we have to talk to is our barber, and that’s simply not the case.

But in order for me to be healthier, especially during this moment of COVID — and I would have never imagined or wanted a book to come out during the COVID crisis or pandemic. But it seems as if this book is evergreen, because we’re always talking about this, these systemic issues. And I wanted people to know that it’s OK to have discussions about our mental health, because we have to be strong physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally, if we’re going to be prepared to tackle this gorilla, this elephant, this albatross around the neck of our country, which is the issue of race.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you were dear friends with Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who died at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, in the massacre, along with his parishioners. If you could talk about working beside him, then losing him?


AMY GOODMAN: Certainly the country focused on this. But what do you think the media misses, whether we’re talking about that massacre by a white supremacist, or we’re talking about the murder of George Floyd?

BAKARI SELLERS: So, I think the media misses the fact — and this is one thing that I’ll wrap up on. Clem was amazing. Clem actually let a straggly white boy that they didn’t know come into their church and have Bible study with them. And he set him right beside him, on a Wednesday night. And they had a full hour of Bible study. Then they bowed their heads to pray, and that’s when Dylann Roof shot Clem in the neck and shot the rest of them. And I think the world misses the compassion. The world misses the empathy. And white folk miss the level of understanding needed.

Let me wrap up with this, because I want to be extremely clear about My Vanishing Country, and I want to be extremely clear about the life of Clem and Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton and all of these lives that are lost. If we’re going to get to atonement, if we’re going to get to some level of compassion, empathy and humanity, we have to first have understanding. And I always tell people, you can teach me arithmetic, you can teach me science, you can teach me English, but you cannot teach me Blackness. And we have to be willing — white folk in this country have to be willing to read, listen and understand about this experience of being Black in this country. And that’s the way that we begin to have very, very difficult but necessary conversations about how we heal and come together.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Bakari Sellers, for joining us, attorney, former state legislator in South Carolina, now author of a new book, out in the midst of this pandemic, his memoir called My Vanishing Country. He became the youngest African American elected official in the country when he was elected to the South Carolina state Legislature in 2006.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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