Living history

Cleveland Sellers to teach class on civil rights history

An icon of the civil rights movement returns to the University of South Carolina this semester to bring the message of justice, equality and peace to a new generation of college students.

Cleveland Sellers, the retired president of Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, who also was a professor and director of the African-American Studies program at UofSC, will teach “Films and Stories of the Civil Rights Movement” in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The course, which starts March 18, will feature documentaries, news clips and audio recordings of the civil rights era, including recordings of Martin Luther King preaching church sermons. Many of the documentaries planned for the class feature Sellers, including “Scarred Justice, the Orangeburg Massacre” and the HBO film about MLK’s final years, “King in the Wilderness.”

“We think students will gain more detail about how civil rights has been analyzed by academic historians and also how it has been remembered by people who were on the scene as events transpired,” says Bobby Donaldson, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the university.

Throughout the 1960s, Sellers organized protests, marches and sit-ins and was the program director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1968, he was wounded when state troopers opened fire on student activists who were protesting a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Three students were killed and more than 25 injured in what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Sellers was the only person convicted and jailed in what was the first deadly confrontation between law enforcement and students. He was pardoned 25 years later.

“I’m convinced we need to do more on African-American history and civil rights. We seem to have lost focus on the issues of race and economics and how it impacts our communities in 2019,” Sellers says. “It appears as if we have people who don’t understand what the struggles were in the 1960s. We’ve seen how voter suppression and all kinds of efforts are made to minimize the impact of a growing people of color population. We are obviously going to have to go back to some of the same messages to put a stop to that and reverse some of those efforts to turn back the gains of the 1960s.

“The civil rights movement was the most well-organized and significant and impactful social movement of the 20th century, and we did cause some basic changes in the United States. We shouldn’t lose that.”

He’s a vibrant force, someone who makes a huge impact on a university campus. 

History professor Patricia Sulllivan

Sellers also will be featured in a major exhibit, “Justice for All: South Carolina and the American Civil Rights Movement," which will open Feb. 7 in the University Libraries, a collaboration between the Center for Civil Rights History and Research and university librarians and archivists.

“With the work we’re doing on civil rights and the upcoming exhibit, it’s a good time to bring him back to teach a course about the civil rights movement as he lived it and as he remembers it,” Donaldson says. “Coming back will be a way to introduce him to current students and, I believe, given his own personal experiences, it will help us tell the stories in ways we can’t do simply with exhibits. Included in the exhibit are things about him and about people he knew. That’s what’s amazing. We uncovered things we didn’t know we had.

“Cleve was such an integral part of the movement and played a leadership role. He knew so many of the luminaries of the movement. For us, he’s able to provide a first-hand account of his interactions with those persons. For example, in January we mark the 90th birthday of Martin Luther King. Cleveland met with him, socialized with him. He’ll be able to give a different perspective and amplify things in the exhibit.”

Sellers will be in residence at the start of the semester and will team up with Ramon Jackson, a doctoral student in the history department, to teach a class in Spring Session 2, which begins March 18.  The undergraduate class will meet Monday and Wednesday evenings and some sessions will be open to the general public.

“As dean, I am excited that the College or Arts and Sciences is sponsoring Cleveland Sellers’ return to campus. Cleveland is one of the true heroes of the civil rights movement, and a hero, like many others, who endured hardship for his cause,” Dean Lacy Ford says. “Later in his career, Cleveland made important contributions to higher education, both here at USC, where he served as director of African-American studies, and as an administrator at other schools.  On a personal note, Cleve’s office was beside mine in Gambrell Hall for several years, and I can tell you from first-hand observation that he was very dedicated to helping his students. He was a great colleague, always eager to talk history, civil rights, politics, and often a little football or basketball depending on the season. It is wonderful to welcome him back to USC.”

Along with being popular with students and colleagues during his years at UofSC, Sellers was instrumental in recruiting a strong group of scholars to campus.

Patricia Sulllivan, a professor of history, said the opportunity to work with Sellers is one of the reasons she came to the university.

“He was a huge attraction for me as a civil rights historian. When I came here in 2003, he was directing African-American studies and teaching a course in civil rights history. He’s a terrific teacher. He’s very knowledgeable, and he’s extraordinary with students,” Sullivan says. “He’s a vibrant force, someone who makes a huge impact on a university campus. For me, it was great being his colleague for those first years I was here and it’s a tremendous opportunity for the university to have him back here. He’s a noted historical figure in South Carolina and nationally.”

History professor Kent Germany says he, too, came to UofSC in 2006 from the University of Virginia for the chance to work with Sellers.

“Cleveland Sellers is an American hero that has spent his career fighting for things universities need to be fighting for. It’s great news he’s coming back,” Germany says. “He’s an unassuming, quiet, deliberate person. When he communicates, he’s not a preacher in a pulpit, his conversation style is cerebral. Watching him teach and give lectures you see how disarming he can be and how congenial he can be. He’s someone who worked with Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael. But he doesn’t come in with this giant ego. He very much has the style of a community organizer. That’s the remarkable thing that comes across in his teaching.”

Another person Sellers drew to the university is Kimberly Simmons, associate professor of anthropology and African-American studies and the interim director of the Institute for African-American Research. She said the timing is perfect for Sellers to be back on campus, as the nation and the state mark anniversaries of civil rights struggles and look ahead to next steps.

“His return right now is significant; there’s a lot we are thinking about. Where have we been and where are we headed? Student groups today are organizing around different issues — gun violence, #MeToo. There are different kinds of issues, but there are connections there. The struggle may be different, but the struggle continues,” Simmons says. “His story is timely, and we can learn a lot from his leadership and his voice. And you feel really good in his presence.”



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