Sellers speaks to SCSU alumni
by The Press and Standard | May 25, 2018 5:00 am
Last Updated: June 4, 2018 at 8:07 am
By Anna Stevens Bright
The Colleton County Alumni Chapter of South Carolina State University held its annual scholarship banquet on May 19 at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Round O. A room filled to capacity gathered for the event.
The highlight of the evening was the impassioned message delivered by CNN analyst Bakari Sellers, who is also a former member of the S.C. House of Representatives. Former Colleton County School Superintendent Leila W. Williams, a member of the Class of 1986 of SCSU, served as the mistress of ceremony.
Patricia Salley, secretary of the local chapter and a member of Mt. Zion A.M.E., who is also a teacher at Hendersonville Elementary School, gave the welcome after which the head table was introduced. The invocation and blessing of the meal were led by co-chaplain Esther Black, a retired educator. Musical entertainment was provided during the prelude and dinner by members of the local alumni chapter, along with Anthony Taylor on keyboard. Attorney Dwayne Buckner played the saxophone. Leila Williams gave a rendition of “Jesus is Love,” by the Commodores during the serving of the meal. Central Williams, president of the Colleton County Chapter and a member of the Class of 1976, introduced the speaker of the evening. He is also a retired educator.
Bakari Sellers grew up in rural Bamberg County, the son of Cleveland and Gwen Sellers. He earned his B.A. in African-American studies at Morehouse College in 2005. While at Morehouse, he served as Student Government Association president and was a member of the college’s Board of Trustees. In 2008 he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of S.C. School of Law. He has worked for Congressman James Clyburn and former mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin. At the age of 22, Sellers became the youngest member elected to the South Carolina General Assembly, serving District 90 from 2006-2014. He was also a candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 2014.
Sellers was highlighted by “Time” magazine as one of the 40 leaders under 40 who are “Rising Stars of American Politics.” In June 2011, “Governing” magazine named Sellers one of the “12 Democratic Legislators to Watch.” He was named HBCU Top 30 Under 30 in July 2014. He has had extensive leadership experience working for the Democratic Leadership Council and Obama for America.
Sellers is married to Ellen R. Carter, and they have one daughter, Kai Michelle. An analyst with CNN, he has been an attorney with the Strom Law Firm, LLC in Columbia since 2007.
As Sellers began his message, he joked how Colletonians refer to Denmark (where he is from) as rural, yet “Got me out here in Round O.” He went on to say that his parents always taught him two very important words: “Thank You.” Therefore, there were three people he wanted to thank at the banquet. He thanked Leila Williams for opening her door to him to talk about ways to improve public education while so many others would not. Further, he thanked Central Williams for the invitation to speak at the banquet and for being patient with him in trying to confirm the date. Then he thanked this year’s scholarship recipient, Mariah Risher, for all that she has done to earn this scholarship. Sellers went on to say that the reason everyone was there at the banquet was to uplift young people like Mariah.
With a chuckle, he said that he was going to do to us tonight like Elizabeth Taylor did her seven husbands, “I won’t keep you long.” He commended the local chapter for the outstanding work that it is doing. He said that he feels near and dear to S.C. State University because he was a graduate of Felton Laboratory School in 1997, which is housed on that campus.
The most impassioned part of Sellers’s message was the lesson that he shared about three people from South Carolina who made a great impact on its history. He invited his audience to focus on two simple questions: “How far have we come, and where do we go from here?”
He talked about an African-American man, who could pass for white, named George Elmore. He owned two five-and-dime stores, a photography business and a liquor store. So he was considered economically well off for a man of his times. Because he could pass for white, he was able to get a voter’s registration card. In 1946 he attempted to vote in South Carolina’s all-white Democratic primary but was denied the ballot because the Whites at the polls told him that they knew he was a “nigra.” Soon after he became a part of a lawsuit filed by the NAACP, Elmore vs. Rice, because he was not allowed to vote. As a result, he and his wife became victims of economic reprisal, and she ended up being committed to a mental institutional in Columbia. George Elmore died brokenhearted over his wife and broken economically. It is because of George Elmore’s sacrifice and Elmore vs. Rice that African-Americans can vote in primaries.
Sarah Mae Flemming, an unsung heroine of the Civil Rights Movement, was the second person who Sellers discussed. She was a domestic who worked in Columbia. One morning when she got on a bus to go to work, she took the first seat available, in what was deemed the “Whites Only” section of the bus. The driver challenged and humiliated her about the seat, so she signaled to get off the bus at the next stop. The bus driver blocked her attempt to exit through the front of the bus and punched her in the stomach as he ordered her out the rear door. She, too, filed a lawsuit and eventually won. Her sacrifice set the action for 17 months later when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala.
The last person Sellers discussed in this metaphorical, captivating history lesson, was his own father, Dr. Cleveland Sellers, whose family was of “the middle class by white standards.” His father got involved in the Civil Rights Movement against the wishes of his parents. He entered Howard University in 1963, but in 1964 he returned to protest activity and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1968 Dr. Sellers was arrested and charged for instigating a riot (“a one-man riot”), during a protest against the all-white bowling alley, by S.C. State University students and others, which resulted in the deaths of three African-American males by S.C. state troopers who were never convicted of the Orangeburg Massacre. Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton lost their lives, and 28 others were injured on Feb. 8, 1968.
Sellers went on to mention that on Feb. 8, the students went back to the bowling alley to continue their protest but then chose to go back on their own campus where they felt safer to protest. They could not perceive what was about to happen to them when the line of state troopers surrounded their campus.
Sellers said that one day he asked his father what his greatest sacrifice was. He said, “Being in jail while your big sister was born.” (Dr. Sellers went on to become a college president, an author, and continues his work with civil rights. Twenty-five years after he was convicted, he was fully pardoned by the Governor of S.C. Dr. Sellers refuses to have his record expunged because he wants it to remain as “a badge of honor.”)
Sellers reiterated the question, “Where do we go from here?” He said, “We have two choices: chaos or community.”
He made reference to the recent school shooting in Texas and asserted, “We are on the brink of chaos. While we have made progress, we still have a ways to go. There are 200 cities in the country with a high lead content, and Denmark is one of them.”
He went on to say that as we continue to take this journey to excellence, he knows that we will get tired. We will ask, “Does it matter? Nothing is changing as we watch the news.” Sellers pointed out two choices that we have and must take on this journey to excellence:
n “You have to remain and retain the ability to dream with your eyes open.”
n “Love our neighbors even when they don’t love us.”
n “Continue to fight, and continue to do right because it is what’s required.”
As Sellers came to the conclusion about this journey of excellence, he quoted the late Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, minister, educator, and civil rights leader, “Whatever you do, do it so well that people looking on will feel that the task was reserved especially for you by God Himself.”
It was obvious that the audience was completely immersed in what Sellers had to say and truly enjoyed him as evidenced by its rousing standing ovation. At the closing of his message, Central Williams presented Sellers with a donation from the Colleton County Chapter to help kick-start his foundation.
As the program progressed, Beverly Haynes, an alumnus of S.C. State University and a retired guidance counselor with the Colleton County School District, presented the 2018 scholarship to Mariah Alexis Risher, a senior at Colleton County High School and the daughter of Virginia Risher-Martin.
She is involved in several extracurricular activities: a member of the tennis team, a participant in two major school plays, a member of CCHS Singers, and part of the JAG program where she was a state delegate. Her hobbies include tennis, fishing, and reading, and she has been riding horses since she was 5.
Mariah plans to major in biology at S.C. State University and participate in the ROTC program.
Her career goal is to become an anesthesiologist and a non-commissioned Army officer. She has already enlisted in the Army Reserves and feels it will work well with the ROTC program in developing her leadership skills. Mariah said that she selected SCSU as her college because of its strong biology and ROTC programs.
Further, she says that attending SCSU will guide her onto the right path to help her succeed and prosper in her career goals.
Mariah received a scholarship in the amount of $1,000 from the Colleton County Alumni Chapter.
Nine other seniors from Colleton County High School will be entering S.C. State University this fall. Three current students, two of whom are recent scholarship recipients, attended the banquet on Saturday night.
Closing remarks were made by Sharon Wigfall, the second vice-president of the S.C. State University National Alumni Association, Central Williams, and Art Williams, vice-president of the Colleton County Alumni Chapter and the banquet chairman.
Other officers of the local chapter are James Rabb, treasurer, and Herman Bright, chaplain. The other scholarship banquet committee members are Patricia Salley, Edith Bright-Washington, Bruce Williams, and Central Williams. The banquet closed with the singing of the SCSU Alma Mater.