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Examining the protests that have engulfed many colleges across the country


Two years before the Ohio National Guard shocked the world by firing into a crowd of Kent State students who'd been protesting the Vietnam War, authorities opened fire on Black students in Orangeburg, S.C., who had been protesting a local bowling alley's refusal to desegregate. Three young people were killed that day, and 28 others were wounded in what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre. One person went to prison, educator Cleveland Sellers, who had himself been shot, allegedly for instigating a riot.

Cleveland Sellers went on to become a respected college president and his son, Bakari Sellers, went on to become one of the youngest elected officials in the country. You see him often as a political commentator on CNN. Given that history, we called Bakari Sellers for his take on the protests that have engulfed many colleges around the country, and he's with us now. Bakari Sellers, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

BAKARI SELLERS: Thank you so much for having me. It's always a pleasure to join you.

MARTIN: So, you know, you weren't born at the time of the Orangeburg Massacre, but you say in your first book, your memoir, "My Vanishing Country," that you always knew about it. So when you look at the current protests, what comes to your mind?

SELLERS: Well, the first thing is trepidation and fear because we haven't learned the lessons from Kent State. We haven't learned the lessons from Jackson State, which happened prior to Kent State, and we definitely have not learned the lessons from South Carolina State. When you mix National Guard and militarized law enforcement with college students, it's not just about arrest records that travel with students for the rest of their lives, but you have a high propensity for violence. And, you know, my father was shot. And my father lost friends that day on the grounds of South Carolina State. My blood literally runs through the soil of this great country because of that interaction.

MARTIN: One of the reasons that I wanted to call you is that you were the age that a lot of the protesters are now when you started planning your first run for elective office. And you won your first elective office when you were only 22 years old. So the question I have for you as a person who has operated at a high level at that age, do you think the protesters are effective in their stated objectives?

SELLERS: I think they are more effective than they ever would have imagined themselves to be. I think sometimes, though, with that effectiveness comes somewhat of a drunkenness off of that attention. Whenever you have, you know, AOC and many others coming to your campus and you're on national news and being seen around the world, sometimes you can get drunk with that adoration, and you lose focus of what your goals are.

I think that, particularly at Columbia, there was an opportunity at the - for the students to gain many concessions from the administration, and all of that was lost due to, you know, just strategizing and a lack of rationale about what you're strategizing for. And I just think they missed the mark. But it's a learning opportunity because these individuals who are protesting are going to be your future lawyers, scholars, doctors, entertainers, etc.

MARTIN: Is there anything that these protesters can do at this point to be more effective?

SELLERS: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, being goal-oriented, I mean, having steps to get to that goal, engaging your administrators. For a period of time, these protesters had all the leverage in the world. They may have missed that moment, but it doesn't mean that the moment is over.

MARTIN: I'm curious, though, that the students have the benefit of the experience of your father's generation and also yours. And I just wonder is it - it was part of the difference that there was a pre-existing organization that was leading the protests as opposed to these becoming sort of ad hoc.

SELLERS: Yeah, there's no Ella Baker. There's no Fannie Lou Hamer. There's no organizer. There's no SNCC. There's no central organizing body that can teach you how to do these things. You know, organizing and protesting is not something you just go out there and do if you want to be successful. And a lot of times, what you're seeing right now is, like, the miseducation of young people in this country. I'm not calling this moment for them unsuccessful. What I am saying, though, is there could be more tangible benefits reaped if those lessons were learned.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I am curious if you have spoken about this current student movement with your dad and what he thinks, if you feel comfortable sharing.

SELLERS: You know, he's never someone to quell student voices or say that students are wrong. I mean, I think he would acknowledge that the language that you use is vitally important. And there is a precise way that you should go about organizing and mobilizing to have tangible results, and they may be missing the mark on that. But he would never tell them to be quiet and go back in their dorms.

MARTIN: Bakari Sellers is an attorney, author and former South Carolina legislator. His latest book is called "The Moment: The Racial Reckoning That Wasn't," and it's out now. Bakari Sellers, thanks so much for joining us.

SELLERS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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