Attorney Bakari Sellers on Sunday told the dozens of people who attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Ballot Boxes Speech 50 years ago in Kingstree that their struggle in the middle of the 20th century is his struggle early in the 21st century. It’s ours right now, he said.
Sellers, a former S.C. representative from Bamberg, spoke Sunday at the March on Ballot Boxes 50-year commemoration event at the Tomlinson High School athletic field in Kingstree. King spoke in the exact spot in 1966 on a rainy Mother’s Day afternoon. The speech was the first of only three public speeches he presented in South Carolina. King encouraged people to get out and vote. Nearly 5,000 people were in attendance that day.
As the keynote speaker for Sunday’s event, Sellers used his time to compare the events of 50 years ago to present day.
“Back when they had a grandfather clause or literacy disenfranchising black voters, I see voter ID,” Sellers said. “They took away the all-white jury and lynch mob and left us with selective prosecution, mandatory minimums and Stand Your Ground.”
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While his father, Cleveland Sellers, saw the ghosts of people such as Emmett Till, Samuel Hammond, Delano Hammond and others, Sellers said he is haunted by Travon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and more. He compared the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four children in Birmingham, Alabama, to the 2015 killing of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
But, in the last general election, roughly 60 percent of the registered minority voters in South Carolina did not vote, Sellers said.
“I want you to think about that, and while you do, realize that if only half that number had shown up, right now we would’ve had a governor, lieutenant governor, two United State senators, probably two more members of Congress, and Lord knows how many state legislatures all working with the president of the United States instead of obstructing him,” said Sellers, who now is a CNN contributor.
After 50 years, Sellers said King’s words still echo because the world is messed up, the nation is sick, trouble is in the land and confusion is all around.
“I want to be free,” Sellers said. “I don’t want to be frustrated and cynical and tired of facing the same old problems year after year with nothing to show for it. I want us to be the Americans we were meant to be.”
Carol Fulton was among the many people at Sunday’s commemoration who also was in attendance 50 years ago. She was 17 at the time and attended the King speech with her parents, who were both active members in the Voter’s League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Fulton said the weather was bad that day in 1966, but thousands of people filled the field and stayed to hear King’s speak.
“It was just a wonderful experience that I never forgot, and I’m just so glad to be alive to be here 50 years later to celebrate it, and on Mother’s Day, the very same day,” she said. “It’s just so good to be here.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., was in attendance Sunday, and he also was there years ago at King’s speech. He said he doesn’t know if he ever thought while standing on the Tomlinson High School athletic field in 1966 that he would be back 50 years later as a representative in the U.S. Congress.
He encouraged people Sunday to be vigilant.
“If we are going to maintain the freedoms that were hard fought starting on that day, on these grounds in 1966, if we are going to maintain those rights, those freedoms, those petitions that we hold, we must be vigilant,” he said. “We must register and we must vote, and we must get out and work for those elected offices. And once they get elected, hold them accountable.”
As a way to physically commemorate King’s speech in Kingstree, a historic marker was unveiled Sunday on Tomlinson Street.