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At MLK Breakfast, Bakari Sellers recalls Civil Rights struggles, calls for more progress

Bakari Sellers speaks on “Activating the Promise of Democracy” at the 36th annual MLK Breakfast at Millersville University’s Student Memorial Center on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Bakari Sellers invited his audience Monday morning on “a journey to excellence” inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It requires asking two questions, he said: How far have we come? And where do we go from here?

Sellers, an attorney, politician, author and media figure, was the keynote speaker at the 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast, presented by Crispus Attucks Community Center at the Student Memorial Center at Millersville University. It is the community center’s premier public event and largest fundraiser.

Sellers is the son of Cleveland Sellers, a Civil Rights era activist. Born in the tiny town of Denmark, South Carolina, Cleveland Sellers was radicalized by the murder of Emmett Till, his son said.

Sent by his parents to Howard College to keep him out of trouble, Cleveland Sellers became friends with Stokely Carmichael and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He led the search for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three activists found murdered in 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

In February 1968, he was one of 28 people wounded (three more were killed) when police opened fire on Black protesters in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The police were acquitted; Cleveland Sellers was arrested and convicted of inciting a riot. He spent a year in jail, missing the birth of his oldest daughter, his son said.
His father’s eyes today, he said, “don’t pop like they used to from shedding so many tears from so many loved ones lost. … His shoulders aren’t as upright as they once were from carrying the burdens of a generation.”

Sellers made it clear his father’s story is one of many. He spoke of George Elmore, a Black man who sued South Carolina in 1946 for the right to vote in the primary; of Sarah Mae Flemming, who was attacked by a bus driver for using the front exit and whose lawsuit against the bus company prefigured Rosa Parks’; and Harry and Eliza Briggs, whose lawsuit led to the “Brown v. Board of Education” decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional.

“We’ve made progress,” Sellers said, “but we still have yet a ways to go.”

A generation of young people doesn’t understand the value of the vote, he said; even as some individuals try to strip it away. Poor and minority communities suffer from inadequate public transportation, contaminated water and crumbling schools.

As for “where do we go from here?” King wrote a short book with that very title, Sellers said, contending that the choice is between chaos or community. Sometimes it feels as though we’re being consumed by the former, he said: The challenge is to build the latter.

That requires two things, he said: A rededication to the principle of “love thy neighbor,” even when that love is difficult, or not reciprocated; and learning to dream with eyes open — that is, acting to turn those dreams into tangible reality.
“Then, and only then, do we get to our final destination, which is excellence,” he said.

Vanessa Philbert, left, CEO of Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County, interviews Bakari Sellers at the MLK Breakfast on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Following Sellers’ speech, Vanessa Philbert sat down with him for a Q&A. Philbert is CEO of Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County, Crispus Attucks Community Center’s parent organization.

Alliance and solidarity are essential to the work of social justice, he said: “There’s no group of people in this room that can do this alone.” He objected strongly to the notion of “colorblindness” as a social ideal: People need to be able to bring their whole selves into the contexts where they live and work. Without the richness of diversity, he said, “you breed mediocrity.”

Asked for the biggest lesson he has learned from his father’s generation of civil rights leaders, Sellers offered two. First, he said, democracy is fragile and requires “a great deal of work and upkeep.” Second is the obligation to take an active role in the community, in each other’s lives.

“What happens to your neighbor, it may not happen to you at that moment,” he said. “But it probably will happen to you next. And so, we should get out of a mode of of self importance, and begin to have some self awareness.”

He expressed confidence in the rising generation of young adults. They’ve been through a gauntlet of world-shaking events, from 9/11 to the pandemic to today’s crises in Gaza and Ukraine, all of it intensified by the rise of social media. Yet they’ve made it, he said: “They’re going to be amazing.”

“Last question,” Philbert said: “What is your hope for democracy?”

That it serve those who are struggling and putting up a brave front, Sellers said.

“I want us to get to a place where people no longer have to try to survive,” he said. “I want us to get to a place where we can thrive.”