TALLADEGA -- Messages of justice and hope echoed through the walls and stained-glass windows of DeForest Chapel during the annual opening convocation ceremony at historic Talladega College on Wednesday.
Students, faculty, staff and various community leaders gathered inside the chapel to focus on the start of a new semester. Those in attendance heard a powerful testimony by guest speaker and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers.
Sellers has championed progressive policies and addressed issues ranging from poverty and education to childhood obesity and domestic violence prevention. He practices law with the Strom Law Firm, LLC in Columbia, South Carolina. He is married to Dr. Ellen Rucker-Sellers.
Most recently, Sellers has provided political commentary and analysis to multiple cable network shows, including MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” and CNN’s “AC360 with Anderson Cooper.”
“I first want to apologize to the college for flying me out to Alabama to offer such a simplistic message,” Sellers said. “I don’t have a two-hour sermon prepared, but I do want to ask you all two questions: How far have you come, and where do you go from here?”
“It is a journey to excellence, not a single step or sprint.”
Sellers noted that by answering those two questions, one could reach his/her destination.
“We have come such a long way, but there is still so much progress that needs to be made,” he said.
Sellers explained such progress through a historical perspective.
“In February 1968, three civil rights workers were shot and killed during a protest at South Carolina State University, in Orangeburg, South Carolina,” he said.
Sellers said that in the days leading up to the protest, community tensions could be “cut with a knife.”
“On the day of Feb. 8, 1968, a young African-American male was among the 27 wounded from the ‘All Star Bowling Lane Protest,’ which is now known as the ‘Orangeburg Massacre.”
Sellers noted the protest stemmed from segregation laws in the area.
“Police fired shots into the crowd amidst the chaos, killing three men: Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith,” Sellers said. “As irony would have it, that young man who was wounded from a gunshot went to the university's infirmary for treatment.
“They told him there was nothing they could do for them, so he had to go to the area hospital. While at the hospital, he was arrested and charged with rioting -- and was sentenced to a year in jail.”
Sellers noted that all eight officers involved were found “not guilty.”
“The shoulders of that man who served a year in prison may no longer be as strong from being shot, but his greatest sacrifice was not witnessing the birth of his oldest daughter.” Sellers added, “I know this because that man is my father, Cleveland Sellers.”
After sharing personal testimony, Sellers then instructed the crowd to “dream with your eyes open.”
“It is within our own ability to decide where you want to go,” he said.
Sellers said that “no dream is too big to be achieved.”
Additionally, Sellers shared his personal experience running for the House of Representatives in South Carolina at age 22. The South Carolina native defeated a 26-year incumbent, becoming the youngest African-American elected official in the United States.
“My family and I just felt like something great was about to happen,” he said.
Sellers served on President Barack Obama’s South Carolina steering committee during the 2008 election.
Said Talladega College President Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, “Bakari, I want to thank you not only for speaking during our convocation, but also for sharing your personal story with us.”
Following Wednesday's convocation, Sellers briefly spoke to The Daily Home about the 2016 presidential election.
Why do you feel it is important for young adults to be involved in the election process?
Sellers: This election, I truly feel, is the most important election of our lifetime. We have the opportunity to elect the first female president, or we could elect someone who could potentially take us backwards from all the progress that’s been made.
What are some strengths and weaknesses of both candidates?
Sellers: Trump’s strength is that he has successfully delivered his message to the white-working class voters and has tapped into a movement. His weaknesses are his bigoted, xenophobic and racist qualities. Clinton’s greatest strength is her knowledge and experience. Her biggest challenge is how she relates to fellow members of the community; she does not have that skill like Bill did.
How do you feel community and race relations can be improved?
Sellers: It is important that community officials and fellow community members have a strong relationship, and build on it. When an individual is approached by local law enforcement, this shouldn’t be their first interaction. It is also important that local police forces are given the proper training and equipment.