South Carolina native Cleveland Sellers Jr. endured pain, humiliation and incarceration while fighting for the rights of his fellow African-Americans.
The early story of his struggle is now told in a biography Outside Agitator, The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr., written by Charleston Post and Courier reporter Adam Parker.
“What it says is blacks have to figure out a way to pull themselves together and become more involved in the political, the social, economic systems in America,” Sellers said.
From his work in the Civil Rights movement and his arrest after the Orangeburg Massacre, to his academic career leading up to president of Voorhees College, Sellers’ life seems to be a part of American history. He said the book has the same message for both blacks and whites who read it.
“I learned when I was 10 years old and the death of Emmett Till, that if we wanted to do something, it had to be something constructive and positive,” he said. “It had to be something that didn’t have a ‘get even’ or ‘an eye for an eye’ or something along those lines.”
Sellers said with the deaths of Till and Medgar Evers, he knew growing up he had to change American society.
“I don’t want to spend my life, the rest of my life, trying how to get even over that,” he said. “I want to try to make sure that we create an environment in which those kinds of things have no place.”
The 74-year-old said his work is not done.
“You just have a cycle here, endless cycle, that goes from cradle pretty much to the graveyard without any opportunities to be something and to contribute in some way to the evolution of America,” he said. “We have to have a shared interest. It takes building a coalition . . . but what we find is that people are still — politicians and presidents — are still manipulating poor white people to think their enemy is black folk when neither have the quality education. Neither have the jobs and the pay that will address many of the problems that they have.”
Sellers said he remembers when the contributions of African-Americans were not included in history textbooks, which instead featured disparaging statements about African-Americans.
“We are going to try to continue to excite the African-Americans and African-American communities and the communities of color to keep engagement. Civil engagement,” he said. “Keep being involved in the economic and political process and see whether or not you can be included in those things.”
Sellers said it’s time for a new generation to finish what was started. “I’m moving on up and it’s time for me to turn the handles over to a younger generation,” he said. “I want young people to stop all of the distractions with this violence in the communities and that kind of thing and come on and recognize there is a struggle that they can be involved with that will make a significant difference not only to them but to the entire community.”
Sellers received a graduate degree from Harvard University, served as the Director of African-American Studies at the University of South Carolina and was president of Vorhees College, among the many highlights of his career.