PHILADELPHIA — For close observers of South Carolina Democratic politics, Thursday night’s lineup at the Democratic National Convention couldn’t have been more perfect.
First up on the main stage was Bakari Sellers, a former state representative, 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor, attorney and prolific on-air contributor to CNN.
Directly following him was Jaime Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party and the only state party chairman to address the convention this year.
And later that evening was U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the 76-year-old South Carolina Democrat and political legend who both Sellers and Harrison could someday succeed.
Sellers, 31, and Harrison, 40, were surprised to learn they were scheduled back to back on the final night of the convention, and they dismissed the idea that there was any competition between them.
“People try to make Jaime and I out to be some sort of rivals for the state and the party and the future, but I don’t think they truly understand my admiration for Jaime and our brotherly friendship,” Sellers said earlier Thursday. “I’ll probably pause as soon as I walk off the stage just to enjoy his words.”
Harrison, who was an aide with Clyburn in Washington at the same time Sellers was a summer intern, had similarly complimentary words earlier in the day.
“I think he has true political talent,” Harrison said of Sellers. “He’s an amazing speaker. It’s a tough act to be going after Bakari, to be quite honest, and I say that with truth. He’s a great orator.”
Both young black men see themselves as poised to carry on the powerful legacy that Clyburn, a veteran civil rights leader, has forged on the state and national stage.
Of the two, Sellers has the larger national profile, regularly appearing on television screens in millions of homes across America.
“In my job, my job is to be a voice, a voice for the voiceless, not only for South Carolina but for state party politics,” Sellers said. “By me having a larger platform now and honing my message in front of the world, hopefully when I’m ready to run (for office) again, or support someone who is running again, we will be a voice that is not a whisper, but a voice that’s a bullhorn.”
His speech Thursday was a call to embrace the spirit of activism, something he grew up with as the son of civil rights fighter Cleveland Sellers.
“We must continue to embrace our history, recognizing the party of Barack Obama was first the party of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, that before there was a Hillary Clinton, there was a Shirley Chisholm,” Sellers said. “Once we fought just to be seated, but now I stand before you unbowed, unbroken and unafraid.”
He roused the crowd to its feet as he shouted, “Stand up if you’re ready to close the loopholes in our nation’s gun laws,” “Stand up for Black Lives Matter,” “Stand up if you know, like I know, we’re stronger together.”
The crowd for both Sellers’ and Harrison’s speeches was somewhat sparse, as they both spoke in the first hour of the session, long before Clinton was set to take the stage for her acceptance speech.
Harrison has close connections to Hillary Clinton’s inner circle. He considers Clyburn his “political father” and his name is rumored to be among the potential picks to chair the Democratic National Committee should Clinton win in November.
Harrison said he thinks he has gotten attention for building a strong state party infrastructure in the South, which Democrats have only recently begun to consider fertile ground for party gains at all levels. His speech was a tribute to South Carolina’s promise, its troubling past and its hopeful future.
“Democrats believe in a New South because no matter your race, immigration status, income, religion, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, we all have the same aspirations for high quality education, good jobs, safe neighborhoods, health care and retirement,” he said. “These aspirations were my grandmother’s, who now sees her grandson as the first black party chair in South Carolina. These aspirations were Jim Clyburn’s, who became majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“When this generation hears Donald Trump claim that America was only great in some bygone era, we know painfully well we can’t go back to the Old America and the Old South,” he said.
Earlier this week, Clyburn called himself the “old guy” in the trio. A 24-year veteran of Congress who is now its third most senior House Democrat and the highest-ranking black lawmaker on Capitol Hill, he made his speech about Clinton and her record of achievement. He endorsed her before South Carolina’s primary in February in a move many considered pivotal to her success in the state.
Clyburn cast her as a change agent who would help the country achieve the heights of which Sellers and Harrison spoke.
“The changes we seek for our great country will not come easy,” Clyburn said. “To achieve a stronger and better America, we need a leader who is willing and able to fight for the dreams of all Americans.
“If there’s one thing I know about Hillary Clinton, it is this: She is a fighter. And she fights with her head and her heart.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.