November 8, 1944 |
Denmark, South Carolina, USA
|Movement||African-American Civil Rights Movement|
Cleveland Sellers, Jr. (born November 8, 1944) is an American educator and veteran civil rights activist.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Sellers helped lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was the only person convicted and jailed for events at the Orangeburg Massacre, a 1968 civil rights protest in which three students were killed by state troopers. Sellers' conviction and the acquittal of the other nine defendants was believed to be motivated by racism, and Sellers received a full pardon 25 years after the incident.
Sellers is the former Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina. He served as president of Voorhees College, a historically black college in South Carolina, from 2008 to 2015.
Sellers was born in Denmark, South Carolina, to Cleveland Sellers (Sr.) and Pauline Sellers. He began attending the Voorhees School when he was 3 and served as its mascot. He attended Voorhees from ninth through 12th grades, graduating in 1962. During his boyhood, Sellers joined the Boy Scouts of America and attended the 1960 National Scout jamboree in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Although Sellers completed the requirements necessary to become an Eagle Scout, "his paperwork was lost" and he was not formally recognized with the honor until December 3, 2007, at 64 years of age, more than four decades after it was earned. Sellers was presented with a historically correct Eagle Scout medal that would have been awarded in the 1960s at a special Eagle Scout Court of Honor at the 2010 Centennial National Scout Jamboree.
In 1960, in response to the Greensboro sit-ins, Sellers organized a sit-in protest at a Denmark, South Carolina lunch counter. At the age of 15, he was active for the first time with the Civil Rights movement.
In 1962 Sellers enrolled in Howard University. After the 1960 protest, Sellers' father had forbidden his son's jeopardizing himself by becoming an activist. However, during his sophomore year, Sellers became involved with SNCC. He worked on voter registration drives in Mississippi, and was the director of the Holly Springs COFO office during Mississippi Freedom Summer. A significant amount of material on this period may be found in the Mississippi Digital Library. In 1965 he became the program director of SNCC. In the summer of 1966, when Sellers heard of the attempted murder of James Meredith, he joined other civil rights campaigners, including SCLC's Martin Luther King, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick in the march across Mississippi.
After the march, Sellers was with Carmichael when the term “black power” was first used. He was also one of the first members of SNCC to refuse to be drafted into the U.S. military as a protest against the Vietnam War. The leadership of SNCC thought that the Johnson Administration was trying to silence SNCC by drafting its leadership. Sellers graduated from Howard in 1967. After graduation, he returned to South Carolina.
On February 8, 1968, approximately 200 protesters gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University (in the city of Orangeburg) to protest the segregation of the All Star Bowling Lane. Now called All-Star Triangle Bowl, it was a bowling alley on Russell Street, owned by local businessman Harry K. Floyd. Police officers panicked when they thought they were being attacked (so they claimed) and fired into the crowd, killing three young men: Samuel Hammond, all-state basketball player Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith, and wounding 27 others.
The ensuing trial, billed as the first federal trial of police officers for using excessive force at a campus protest, led to the acquittal of all nine defendants. Sellers was the only individual imprisoned as a result of the incident. He served seven months in prison after a conviction for inciting to riot.
During his imprisonment he wrote his autobiography, The River of No Return, chronicling his involvement with the civil rights movement. Sellers received a full pardon 25 years after his conviction, but he chose not to have his record expunged, keeping it as a "badge of honor."
After his release from prison, Sellers earned a Master's degree in education from Harvard University in 1970. He ran unsuccessfully for office in Greensboro, North Carolina while aiding the 1984 presidential campaign of Reverend Jesse Jackson. Sellers earned his Ed.D. in History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1987.
He served as Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of South Carolina. His scholarly interests include recording the history of protest tradition, civil rights history, and the experiences of Africans in the Diaspora. He focuses on the oral history of African Americans who shaped the history of South Carolina, including cultural groupings and the languages of Gullah, Creole, and Geechee. He also has studied the survival experiences of African Americans, sometimes recorded in folklore but often unrecorded.
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Sellers has two sons and a daughter.
His youngest son is former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari T. Sellers (born September 18, 1984). At the age of 22, B. T. Sellers was one of the youngest state lawmakers in the United States when he was first elected in November 2006.