Five decades ago, Cleveland L. Sellers Jr., then an active participant in the civil rights movement and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., faced significant obstacles on a course of action set forth to attain justice and equality.
As distinguished guest of the President’s Forum Speaker Series at HWS, Sellers, a lifelong educator who has been president of Voorhees College since 2008, shared details of this remarkable story and the associated historical context during an on-campus presentation, “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.”
“I am just happy to be here this evening, because by being here, I stand on the shoulders of unsung heroes and heroines,” Sellers said, citing figures of the civil rights movement, including Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson and Fannie Lou Hamer.
The President’s Forum talk was held Thursday, Nov. 21, in the Vandervort Room of the Scandling Campus Center. Attendees included local community members and representatives for the Association of Episcopal Colleges who were visiting HWS for an annual meeting.
Sellers introduced attendees to the subject of civil rights by singing a few words from a freedom song – a refrain he says was used to motivate young people of the civil rights era.
“I wanted to share that with you so that you could see that there was something there that kept us moving,” he said. “An idealism, some belief in the possibility of reaching justice for all and the other kinds of things we thought were possible: love, community, humanity.”
Sellers said his participation in the civil rights movement roughly began in his early teens around 1960. Calling his experience unique and personal, Sellers said he became conscious of the significance of the struggle for equality faced by so many. Through his work, Sellers formed bonds with many leaders of the day, including King.
He said despite history’s traditional focus on civil rights covering the mid-1950s through the late 1960s, the movement’s foundation and strategic maneuvers extend to efforts that took place in the 1930s, including legal work carried out by attorney Charles Hamilton Houston.
Sellers also described significant occurrences that took place during the time, including the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Tills in 1955, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the 1963 March on Washington.
“It was so important to change the system that denies your respect and steals your dignity,” Sellers said.
To fight segregation and in response to the Greensboro sit-ins that took place at a Woolworth department store, Sellers organized a sit-in at a lunch counter in Denmark, S.C. It was 1960 and Sellers was 15 years old.
Several years later, after enrolling at Howard University, Sellers was arrested during a protest at South Carolina State University during an incident that later became known as the “Orangeburg Massacre.” Three were killed by police and 27 were wounded, including Sellers. Sellers said he faced several charges and was the only one convicted. He would receive a full pardon 25 years later.
“They had me locked up on death row in a South Carolina penitentiary,” Sellers said. “I said, ‘now this is all a human mind can take,’ and so, that’s a part of the legacy; the give-and-take. But that’s not the end of the story. As you begin to take on these issues you have to be serious, you have to be committed and you have to be willing to make some sacrifices.”
Sellers said he needed to carry on and uphold his responsibilities. He needed to continue down the road to freedom. With that, Sellers says that young people should be informed of the story of struggle and how those who have overcome have fought for freedom. Sellers said young people can accomplish their goals and become change agents through their education.
During the presentation, President Mark D. Gearan offered opening and closing remarks.
At the event and in light of the connection between Voorhees College and HWS, Gearan recognized Professor Emeritus of Education John Burns and retired Associate Director of Financial Aid Ed Blackwell, who together established an earlier link between HWS and Voorhees College.
Thanks to Burns and Blackwell, HWS students were able to visit Voorhees College in the 1970s. Both Burns and Blackwell attended the President’s Forum.
Gearan also cited Sellers’ courage and commitment as an important and inspiring story.
“President Sellers brings us such a rich perspective, between his work in higher education and through social justice, in terms of human rights and advocacy,” Gearan said. “We talk a lot about lives of consequence on our campus. President Sellers by virtue of his own life’s journey has certainly lead a life of consequence.”