In South Carolina, the name Cleveland Sellers represents the struggles and celebrity that came with the Civil Rights Movement. He incited political change in South Carolina in the 1960’s and has returned to his home state to lead a new generation of black leaders.
Sellers is now president of Voorhees College in Denmark, SC, the same town where he began his civil rights activism by sitting defiantly on a stool at an all-white lunch counter. For the next 10 years, Sellers would lead voter registration drives, walk with Dr. Martin Luther King, and serve seven months in prison for inciting a riot in a protest known as the Orangeburg Massacre, in which three students were killed. Sellers was pardoned 25 years later but is proud of the conviction, calling it a “badge of honor.”
After writing books, earning a Harvard graduate degree and directing African American Studies at the University of South Carolina, Sellers became president of a historically black, Episcopal college.
We asked him to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s undoing of a law that he fought for.
Ashley Byrd: What was your very first reaction?
Dr. Cleveland Sellers: Disappointment, I was disheartened, it was disingenuous. I was even hurt…
When I was a civil rights worker throughout the South…we had all of these impediments against registering to vote, including poll taxes and some terror. We found some voter registration people just disqualified people by having them read the constitution of the State of Mississippi.
The Voting Rights Act was just reauthorized by a unanimous vote in the Senate and majority vote in Congress in 2006 by then-President Bush. And they had taken a look at incidents that distracted from and did not allow voting rights opportunities to take place. They thought they were reauthorizing it because there were still impediments and would be impediments if the bill were not reauthorized. I think we have seen and they were able to document a number of situations that were coming up. We are beginning to see voter ID, cutting out of Sunday voting, cutting the time that people vote, just a whole lot of things that are beginning to go on which impact poor people, African Americans and other minorities.
What the court did will put that right back in the hands of a Congress that is disfunctional and has little or no interest in being of any assistance to poor people and minority folk.
Byrd: The court said in essence, Section 4 is outdated. Could be seen as an achievement, but you are saying we are not there yet.
Sellers: It’s still too soon for you to eliminate. When President Obama was first elected, people said OK, all of that racial strife has dissipated, has just gone away and we are in a post-racial generation. That was a poor analysis of what has transpired. What had transpired is that groups of American citizens came together and voted for a candidate they thought was going to represent them well as the President of the United States. But it didn’t change anything quantitatively that changed the lives of many minorities or poor people just through that election process. We had the need for additional education, resources for education, a large number of incarceration of African American males, unemployment, health care. What happens is that people get to the point where they find ways in which they can actually get their voices heard. That’s what comes after this, people get their voices heard, one way or another. If they can’t do it with the vote, Dr. King used to say you had to do it with your feet.
Byrd: In your autobiography, “The River of No Return,” you talked about being happy to move back home to the South. You said, “Racism is an American phenomenon and even if it is not talked about as much in the North, its existence is felt.” You were saying, the South was not the only offender, but the law only looked at the South. How would you respond to that?
Sellers: If you look around the country, the impediments, the voter ID, that’s all across the country. It’s not just the South.
They had voting on the weekends, voting on Sunday and we saw people getting up and saying we want to change that, not because it’s unaffordable, but we just want to change that because it seems like the poor and minorities are the ones who want to take advantage of all of the additional opportunities to register to vote. We have seen long lines…and people get disinterested and discouraged and go home. If you have to wait for seven hours to vote, there is something wrong with the process?
Byrd: Where do you think the negative effects will show up in SC and what is your recourse in SC?
Sellers: Additional policies and changes like I mentioned, we’ll see more and more of that done to make it more inconvenient for poor people and African Americans to register to vote— and to vote. People will ask why are you concerned about those kinds of issues. There were a lot sacrifices to get the Voting Rights Act enacted and to get President Johnson to take it through or to use the White House as a bully pulpit to get it through. I saw and had lot of my friends who were killed …who were involved in the civil rights movement, and I am veteran of that movement and I can’t get away from that. We worked very hard, too hard to make America be true to its own creed, to its own Constitution and I think this is a blow against that kind of inclusion and democratic process.
Congress has already documented this, in 2006, there were reams and reams of cases and documentation that if it were not reauthorized, that people would use 21st century tactics. It was once dangerous to try to go vote and the rolls were decreased. There are other techniques that I call 21st century, technological techniques that can be employed that will discourage or cause an impediment to people’s right to vote, that is what I am concerned about.
Byrd: President Obama employed the most 21st century technologies to mobilize and motivate voters, can’t those be used to help protect voting rights? What is the recourse?
Sellers: I used the term organize and some people might think that is old-fashioned, but the campaigns in 2008 and 2012, were organized using new technologies to turn out the vote. Going forward, we live in a new technological world, a much smaller world. You have to be able to get your people together, get your ideas out there. You are still talking about one man, one vote.
I think there isn’t but one choice but to organize, start from square one. You’re going to have to figure out how to get something through the political process. I don’t know what people will choose to do. I have a responsibility of providing a quality education for my students here and that’s what I am going to spend my time on. I have spent a number of years, cried a lot of tears and secured what I thought was a victory for America. And obviously the courts think that victory is not longer important or necessary or needed. It has to be kind of like passing that torch along. Young people, progressives and people of all sorts of persuasions have to come together and understand that it’s about equality; justice; opportunities; one man, one vote. We’re back to that fundamental principle again.