Civil Rights Pioneer: Education and Service Key to Ending Discrimination, Injustice

The arc of Cleveland Sellers Jr.’s life has taken him from rural South Carolina to the Ivy League, through the civil rights movement into the first-ever campus shooting in the United States, to exile in Greensboro, N.C., and academia in Columbia then back home to the place where it all started — Denmark, S.C.

 

Along the way, two values have informed every action: education and service. From the beginning, Sellers has advanced the simple idea that through the acquisition of knowledge and an understanding of cultural heritage, Blacks can become at once fully enfranchised and wholly unique, and Americans generally can leave the days of discrimination and injustice behind them once and for all.

 

Sellers, born and raised in Denmark, became a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a young man, working side by side with John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael. When, in 1968, he was promoting the idea of starting a Black studies program at South Carolina State College, he became embroiled in the fiasco now known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Many years later, he would teach Black history, become director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina and then assume the presidency of the historically Black Voorhees College in his hometown.

 

Black studies is part of the effort to make Black history available, to overcome the efforts to portray that history as secondary, he says.

 

“African-American history is American history. There is no way to separate the two,” Sellers says. It is essential to know as much as possible of this history, for we cannot appreciate current circumstances — the election of Barack Obama, for example — without understanding the accomplishments and sacrifices of the past, he says.

 

It is too easy in America to lose a sense of community, he says, too easy to lose a sense of self. Yet the values of the civil rights movement — justice, equality, unity, urgent determination — are just as relevant today as they were then.

 

Public education in South Carolina has come a long way from the days when Sellers was an eighth-grade student. In the early 1960s, students in Denmark used a hand-me-down history text published in 1940 called The New Simms History of South Carolina by Mary C. Simms Oliphant.

 

In it, Blacks were disparaged. They were described as “lazy” and called “thieves” who stole cattle and swine. They were portrayed as a threat. “The sudden freeing of the Negros will bring serious problems,” Oliphant wrote.

 

Arming them to serve in special militias only can bring retribution, she wrote. The Ku Klux Klan was formed of a thoughtful group of white people eager to protect their property and “to frighten superstitious Blacks into submission,” Oliphant wrote.

 

Sellers says his teachers deflected the hostile language, explaining why the book was written this way and why it failed to represent Blacks fairly.

 

“You’re going to be confronted with this kind of nonsense and ignorance, so get educated!” came the command, according to Sellers.

 

In 1984, the South Carolina Department of Education implemented the Education Improvement Act, which stipulated that “each public school of the State must instruct students in the history of the Black people as a regular part of its history and social studies courses” by the 1989-90 school year. But today, many teachers still do not give Black history its due, Sellers says.

 

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On Tuesday, Feb. 6, 1968, Sellers arrived in Orangeburg, S.C., to promote the idea of a Black studies program. It was a pivotal day in South Carolina history. Black students were protesting at the All Star Bowling Lanes whose White owner continued to enforce defunct laws of segregation.

 

The authorities quickly pegged Sellers, who they knew from SNCC, an “outside agitator” and began to keep a close eye on him. On Wednesday, the racial tensions heated up at a S.C. State grievance meeting. On Thursday evening, frustrated students lit a bonfire at the edge of campus. State troopers gathered in force. Sellers heard the ruckus and walked toward the assembly. Someone threw a banister which hit a policeman, bloodying his face.

 

At about 10:30 p.m., one of the 66 patrolmen assigned to the scene fired warning shots into the air, triggering panic among nine officers ill-trained in crowd-control techniques, who shot into the crowd, killing three — Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton — and injuring 28, including Sellers, who was shot near his armpit.

 

The students were unarmed, and many were shot in the back, side or feet as they turned to flee or fell to the ground.

 

Sellers was the only one arrested, tried and jailed — on trumped up charges. On Sept. 24, 1970, after much delay, Circuit Judge John Grimball heard Sellers’ case. The defense moved for an acquittal, citing irregularities, but the judge ruled an imprecise indictment was permissible, though no hard evidence had been presented demonstrating Sellers’ involvement in the confrontations of Feb. 6. He was sentenced to one year in jail, and served a little more than seven months.

He was exonerated in 1993 by South Carolina’s Probation, Pardon and Parole Board.

 

After the Orangeburg Massacre, Sellers moved to Greensboro, N.C. He met Gwendolyn Williamson at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., when he traveled there to make a speech. They married in December 1972. Her father was a minister from Memphis who had been active in the civil rights movement.

Years later, their youngest son Bakari would become a member of the South Carolina state Legislature. Their oldest son, Cleveland, would become a businessman and preacher. Their daughter Nosizwe would become a doctor. Sellers himself earned degrees from Shaw University, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. 

 

 

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At the ninth annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Business and Professional Breakfast on Jan. 14, organized by the YWCA of Greater Charleston and sponsored by the city of Charleston, S.C., Sellers delivers the keynote address.

 

He says it was the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s that laid the foundation for Obama’s rise to the White House.

 

The King holiday is a chance to educate people about the importance of social activism, and to recognize the contributions of many thousands who confronted injustice.

 

Before the Obama campaign rallied Americans through the Internet, delivered messages of hope and change and fostered a sense of community, there was the civil rights movement, which did the same things, Sellers says.

 

“We never thought that we would see this day,” he says. “We believed we would get here, but we never thought we’d see this day.”

 

The great oratory of King is justly recognized, but it is equally important to acknowledge the many individual acts of determination and hard fight in the courts that led to sweeping changes in the law, Sellers says.

 

King himself gave credit to the movement when he traveled to Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. In his speech, King said: “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.”

 

Sellers drives home the point.

 

“It is the movement from which Dr. King emerges rather than the movement that emerges from Dr. King,” he says, encouraging attendees to continue the push for a just society.

 

It is a movement that produced Sellers, who has returned home to Denmark to assume the reins of Voorhees College, a historically Black school that has been coping with declining enrollment and funding challenges in recent years.

 

Sellers will try to diversify the student body by inviting students from the Caribbean, South America and Africa to participate in a “community of learning,” and in so doing to instill in Voorhees’ students a global perspective, he says. He will strive to develop the liberal arts curriculum, improve science education and attract new faculty.

After the activism of his early years, turmoil in Orangeburg and exile in Greensboro, Sellers is in Denmark to face new challenges. But this is a man used to unfavorable odds, a man whose life has been dedicated to applying the steady pressure that, little by little, causes the world to change.

Dr. Cleveland Sellers Jr., president of Voorhees College, has a lot or work to do. But he’s home, really home.



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