Editor’s Note: Bakari Sellers, a CNN contributor, served in South Carolina’s House of Representatives from 2006 to 2014. He is an attorney at the Strom Law Firm in South Carolina. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Bakari Sellers: People came from everywhere to participate in historic lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina
He says event showed rare instance in politics of showing empathy for someone's experience that is completely foreign to our own
They came early in the morning and from all over – the men, women and children of the South, brought together by a shared sense of purpose and promise and a shared determination to write a new chapter in the too often tragic history of our state and nation.
They came to Columbia, South Carolina by the thousands from a thousand different backgrounds – white and black, young and old, immigrant and native born – and before long the crowd was too large for most to actually see the ceremony. But that didn’t matter. That’s not why they came.
They came to simply be here, to be present for a historic moment of change and to recognize their place in it. They came despite the crowd and the triple-digit heat so that years from now they could say “I was there when it happened.”
They came to help make history…and to celebrate.
By 9:30 a.m. Friday, the crowd had spilled over the sidewalks and filled Gervais Street, named after the late state Sen. John Lewis Gervais, who, during the debate over the name of South Carolina’s new state capital in 1786, famously said that he hoped “the oppressed of every land might find refuge under the wings of Columbia.” And the irony struck me that this city, named in the image of liberty personified, has so long borne this flag of oppression.
A cheer went up when members of the state legislature and their families gathered at the top of the Capitol steps, the crowd recognizing their service and leadership over the past several days. They had participated in what was a sometimes heated debate, which served not only to pass the legislation necessary for the flag’s removal, but to open a new more honest dialogue about race relations in this state and in our nation.
I see men like state Sens. Larry Martin and Tom Davis, who showed remarkable frankness and empathy in describing how, until a few weeks ago, they had never realized just how offensive the Confederate battle flag is for many of us or how painful those old wounds still are.
At the end of the day, that’s perhaps the most remarkable thing to come out of this. That ability to look beyond the talking points and party lines, and to truly empathize with someone whose experience may be completely foreign to our own, is rare in our politics today.
Would Rep. Jenny Horne still vote for voter ID today, as she did a few years ago, or would she be able to see it as I do, a poll tax that does nothing but deprive minority men and women of their right to vote? Could the South Carolina House of Representatives that voted 93-27 to remove the Confederate battle flag find the votes necessary to expand Medicaid? Just imagine what could be possible.
Maybe I’m just optimistic. Maybe this is just a flag, just a moment in time and it doesn’t mean anything. But as four state troopers began to lower the flag at 10:08 a.m. and the crowd erupted in celebration, I found myself believing that something has changed after all.
I wish my father had been here. He was just 17 years old in 1962 when the flag was raised over the State House and, after all his struggles and sacrifices, he deserved to be here perhaps more than any of us. But when I asked him if he was coming, he said no. He said he’d passed the torch of this struggle to a new generation – and now it would be our responsibility.
I hope we make him proud and looking out at the smiles on those thousands of faces from a thousand different backgrounds, I believe we will.