Cleveland Sellers: 40 years after surviving the "Orangeburg Massacre," a civil rights activist becomes president of historically black college





Looking back, it’s as if Cleveland Sellers was preparing his entire life to become president of Voorhees College.

After all, he was born in Denmark, S.C., home of the historically black Episcopal institution, and he even graduated from the college’s affiliated high school in 1962. For the past 15 years, Sellers has driven an hour and 15 minutes — each way, each day — between Denmark, where he still lives, and Columbia, where he is director of the African American studies program at the University of South Carolina. So in a real sense, when his duties commence this fall, he’ll be coming home both figuratively and literally.

“For me it’s almost a complete circle,” Sellers says, recalling a time when he was 3 or 4, acting as a “mascot” for the college where his mother was on the faculty and where he would be named president over half a century later. He’d go on to attend Voorhees — which at that time of heavily enforced segregation was a junior college with an affiliated private high school for black students — for the 9th through 12th grades. It gave him a taste of higher education, a passion he’d go on to pursue, first as an undergraduate at Howard University, then later on earning a master’s degree in education at Harvard University and an Ed.D. at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“It was a college experience.... It was a world-class educational experience that we got,” Sellers said.

But before pursuing the life of an academic and an educator, the civil rights movement made an activist out of Sellers, who like many young students at historically black colleges in the 1960s found himself participating in nonviolent civil disobedience through groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After graduating from Howard, he returned to South Carolina as a grassroots civil rights organizer. On Feb. 8, 1968, he came face to face with the brutal violence he’d worked to fight.

On that day, activists had staged a protest, held at the historically black South Carolina State University, against a local whites-only bowling alley. Police officers at the scene opened fire and killed three young men, wounding 27, one of whom was Sellers. Later dubbed the “Orangeburg Massacre,” the incident never received the kind of publicity as the Kent State shootings in 1970 but anticipated the race-fueled bloodshed the nation would see two months later with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr....


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