On February 8, 1968, on the South Carolina State University campus, located in Orangeburg, South Carolina, civil rights protestors started a bonfire. While attempting to put out the fire and disperse the crowd, a policeman was injured by a wooden board. This led to a massive clash between law enforcement and the protestors. Eight officers fired their weapons into the crowd of over 200, wounding 27 and killing three young African-American males.
The Orangeburg Massacre was the deadliest response to a civil rights protest in South Carolina. The government, needing a scapegoat, landed on activist Cleveland Sellers and he served seven months in prison. He was charged with inciting a riot at a local, segregated bowling alley a few days prior, wherein protestors were being arrested just for showing up to the All-Star Lanes. These arrests are what spurred the other protests, which led to Governor Robert McNair to overreact and allowing for the use of force.
Bakari Sellers was born on September 18, 1984, in Bamberg County, South Carolina to Cleveland and Gwen Sellers. Growing up, Bakari heard his father’s story of an unjust justice system and the shockingly brutal acts the government used to keep a racist institution alive and decided his destiny from an early age.
“…heard his father’s story of an unjust justice system…decided his destiny from an early age.”
Bakari Sellers became the youngest state attorney, working in the lower house of the South Carolina State Legislature at the age of 23. He worked there for eight years before vacating the seat in 2014. He left to run for political office, and the documentary While I Breathe, I Hope, which is South Carolina’s state motto, follows Bakari Sellers on his bid for Lieutenant Governor.
The beginning of the movie opens with Sellers as the keynote speaker at the 50th memorial anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre. He lays out why the event, which happened almost 20 years before he was born, is one of the most significant moments in his life. He relays his father’s struggle and his hope that the future will continue to get better, even if we, as a society, aren’t there yet.
Then the movie sees Sellers hit the road, stumping for his campaign. The 18-hour days and long drives mean he is away from his fiance, Ellen Rucker most days of the month. He gives speeches, does meet and greets, makes calls to potential voters, and then, in the middle of his campaign, he holds a press conference.
He and Vincent Sheheen, who was running for Governor, demand the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House (aka the Capitol building) in Columbia. It houses the branches of the government in the state, which means that African-Americans who work there go outside and see a symbol associated with bigotry. This bid fails, but Sellers stands by it as a highlight, knowing he set out to do what is right.
“…an immediacy and timeliness that will resonant with viewers frustrated at the circus the federal government has become.”
Spoiler alert, Sellers does not win his run for office. However, that is hardly the point of While I Breathe, I Hope. See, when the AME Church shooting took place in 2015, Sellers went to Charleston (roughly an hour and a half from the state capital of Columbia) that night. He was on the news discussing the sort of intense rhetoric that would lead to someone doing such a heinous act of terrorism. The Confederate flag would be taken down from the State House shortly after this deadly tragedy.
In the charismatic, well-spoken Sellers, director Emily L. Harrold finds a touchingly personal way to view the intense polarization of politics. In the wake of the shooting, Sellers, still a practicing lawyer, becomes an activist as well as an outspoken media personality against eventual President Trump’s incendiary remarks and tweets. This galvanizing of Sellers gives the documentary an immediacy and timeliness that will resonant with viewers frustrated at the circus the federal government has become. In doing this, While I Breathe, I Hope becomes an intense, urgent cry that change needs to happen now.
I don’t know when, how, or even if such a change will take place. But, thanks to the courage of Bakari Sellers, I am hopeful, that others, seeking such change as well, will get involved. While I Breathe, I Hope will encourage them to do so; it tells future generations that just because a person in power does or says something, that does not make it right, be brave, and take solace in that society can and will get better.