Speaker series discusses racial justice, African American voting rights

By Bella Markovitz, Staff Writer

Despite being in the midst of a murder trial, keynote speaker Bakari Sellers put his defense attorney duties on pause for an hour to speak at the “Our Voice Our Vote” webinar. According to James Huguley, the School of Social Work’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, Sellers showed his commitment to the fight for racial justice.

“You joined us in the midst of a murder trial. So, I mean, that speaks volumes more than any words can on your commitment to this work on the ground, and in the public and intellectual spheres. So thank you for that,” Huguley said.

Pitt’s Center for Race and Social Problems (CRSP) once again collaborated with the African American Strategic Partnership (AASP) on Tuesday for their ongoing speaker series. The latest webinar event focused on the history and power behind the African American vote and voice in the fight for racial justice and featured Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative, current lawyer and political analyst.

According to Sellers, two questions should shape the way in which work regarding racial justice and social issues are evaluated — “How far have we come?” and “Where do we go from here?”

“I am someone who believes that these questions should be the center of any introspection that we do,” Sellers said. “But in order to answer the first question of ‘how far have we come,’ I think any viewer will appreciate that historical context is necessary.”

Sellers recounted the stories of Black activists from South Carolina’s past — including George Elmore, a Black man who dared to vote in an all-white primary in 1946, Harry and Eliza Briggs, two Black parents who helped file the first lawsuit of five that would eventually be combined into the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, and finally his own father, civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers. 

“How far have we come?” Sellers asked. “The answer, honestly, is that we’ve made progress, but we still have yet a ways to go.”

Reflecting on this history, Sellers said the answers to his questions can only be uncovered once African Americans rededicate themselves to loving their neighborhoods and remember that they are “a people of dreamers who always dream of things yet to be seen.”

The second part of the lecture included a Q&A session, led by Huguley. Reading a question from one of the participants, Huguley asked Sellers how society can move forward while Republicans are “reshaping” democracy, by “illegally rigging elections, gerrymandering districts and stonewalling legislations.”

Admitting that it is a difficult question, Sellers said to move forward, people must all focus on their own well-being, in addition to implementing change in their local communities.

“I think we have to be extremely goal oriented and understand that most of the change we want to see doesn’t come from Washington, D.C., doesn’t come from the United States Congress, but actually comes not even on a precinct level but a sub-precinct level,” Sellers said. “And I think we have to learn how to organize again. I think we have to learn how to organize our churches, organize our sororities, organize PTAs, organize our friends around us.”

According to Sellers, there are many ways activists and organizers can work to increase African American voter turnout, among which are focusing on local communities and having “real conversations” with community members at churches, barbershops, beauty salons and football games.

Huguley asked whether cooperation in this country is “irrevocably broken” or if “catastrophic events” are necessary to change the political system. According to Sellers, not even tragedies can create change in some cases, referring to the recent May 24th shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

“Certain catastrophic events don’t work. So if y’all think we gonna get gun control because some brown kids in Texas just got slain, then y’all are silly, okay?” Sellers said. “Because if you kill 26 little white kids in Connecticut, and don’t do nothing about it, they not about to do nothing about it now.” 

But, he said in some cases, tragedies have indeed led to social change.

“Without the assassination of King, you don’t get the Fair Housing Act of ‘68, right? It just doesn’t happen. Fast forward to 2015. If nine people, including one of my good friends, Clemente Pinckney, doesn’t die in a church, then we don’t take the Confederate flag down in South Carolina,” Sellers said, referencing the 2015 mass shooting in a Charleston church. “Every ounce of change we’ve ever had in this country has been because of Black blood that’s flowed in the streets.”

Sellers said the pandemic played a large role in directing the public’s sustained attention to the murder of George Floyd. 

“We were all at home, and you were forced to watch this clip over and over and over and over again. And then it’s a worldwide outrage,” Sellers said. “That is the price that it took for a Black man to get accountability in this country under those circumstances.”

When asked how the older generations can support the younger generations in their movements for social change, Sellers said that the older generations should do more to make way for the youth and give them more credit and “grace.”

Sellers said Generation Z has lived through a lot of hardship, citing countless life-changing events like the 9/11 attacks, a housing crisis, a recession, the emergence of the Tea Party, the election of Donald Trump, countless school shootings and a pandemic.

“That is a full multi-generational life that they’ve lived through in two decades. And so I think we have to give young people some grace, because they’re still here,” Sellers said. “And there’s a lot to be said for surviving. And so I think that older folks can get out of the way and give them grace.”