When Cleveland Sellers, who speaks Monday, Jan. 21, at the Atlanta History Center, went back to school in 1968, he was looking for a little peace and quiet.
The young leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been working for the previous few years “in the trenches,” registering voters in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, participating in the Freedom Summer, the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery march and many other seminal moments.
“It was like being in a war zone,” he said in a recent interview from his South Carolina home. Seeking a break, he enrolled in the historically black South Carolina State University.
It was jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
He landed in the middle of one of the most violent episodes of the Civil Rights era, the Orangeburg Massacre. On Monday Sellers, along with South Carolina journalist Adam Parker, author of a new book about Sellers, “Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.,” will talk about Orangeburg.
On the evening of Feb. 8, 1968, a group of about 200 students, protesting a segregated bowling alley, started a bonfire on campus. As police and firefighters tried to douse the blaze, a scuffle began. It was the fourth day of protest and the governor had already called out the National Guard.
Law enforcement officers began firing into the crowd, killing three teenagers, and wounding 28 more people, including Sellers. Many of those wounded were shot in the back as they ran away.
Nine law enforcement officers were charged in the deaths and all nine were acquitted. Sellers was characterized as an “outside agitator,” and charged with inciting a riot. He served seven months in prison, during which time he wrote his autobiography, “The River of No Return.”
The young man moved to North Carolina, went on to become a college professor and a college president, and was influential in persuading colleges to include courses in African-American studies.
As a result of the efforts by Sellers and others, the academic world has changed. Many years later Sellers returned to his home town of Denmark, S.C.
Though he was pardoned 25 years after his conviction, he said there’s never been a satisfactory inquiry into the event. “I’m still waiting on justice,” he said.
Parker, 53, met Sellers while writing about the anniversary of the massacre for the Charleston Post & Courier, and then in 2008 the two spent time together as Parker worked on a long-form profile of Sellers that ran on four successive Sundays.
That profile eventually paved the way for a biography. Jack Bass, co-author (with Jack Nelson) of “The Orangeburg Massacre,” was a mentor who helped Parker get started.
“Over the eight years it’s taken to write this I met with (Sellers) a couple dozen times,” said Parker. “The average length of our interviews would be three to four hours each.” Sellers said Adam Parker did “a pretty incredible job.”
Parker was born in Detroit and lived in New York City for 18 years before moving to Charleston. He said he loves the city and the state. “It’s beautiful and fascinating, and troubling, very troubling.”
Sellers was an associate of Stokely Carmichael and was part of the birth of the Black Power movement, which made him very unpopular with the FBI. “White people were terrified of Black Power,” said Parker. “You had authorities in Orangeburg going door-to-door telling white residents to arm themselves and blockade themselves because marauding armed, black teenager-hordes are going to come shoot up the town.
“He left South Carolina afraid for his life,” said Parker. “It made him think, right or wrong, that he was being targeted for assassination.”
After the 1968 killings, Sellers said his parents “were happy that I made it away from Orangeburg. They knew some people were upset that I was still breathing, still alive.”
Sellers and Parker appear as part of a number of activities at the Atlanta History Center celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when admission will be free.
On that day the center will screen Frederick Lewis’ documentary “Paul Laurence Dunbar: Beyond the Mask,” about one of the first African American writers to achieve national and international fame, followed by a conversation with the filmmaker.
The center also invites visitors into immersive theatrical experiences. Visitors can find out what it was like to be Freedom Rider, learn about the 1906 race riot from a newsboy of the era, take on the role of an African-American soldier during the Civil War and hear a trailblazing student interviewed about integrating Atlanta schools.
Visitors will also have multiple opportunities to watch the 20-minute film, “I Have a Dream,” which documents King’s historic speech during the 1963 march on Washington.
“Paul Laurence Dunbar: Beyond the Mask,” a screening and conversation with filmmaker Frederick Lewis, 1 p.m., Monday, Jan. 21; Woodruff Auditorium; Cleveland Sellers and Adam Parker will discuss “Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.” at 3:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 21, in the Woodruff Auditorium; free; Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Rd., 404-814-4000; AtlantaHistoryCenter.com.
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