USC professor reflects on life, civil rights movement

Story by Liz White for Carolina Reporter. Spring 2008.

From prison to professor, Sellers plans retirement and continued fight for justice

Cleveland Sellers, director of African-American studies at the University of South Carolina, has lived an extraordinary life. He worked beside historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker during the civil rights movement. He spent seven months in state prison for “inciting a riot” in connection with the Orangeburg Massacre.

As a South Carolina native, Sellers dedicated his life to the civil rights movement, and teaching and inspiring young people. On Feb. 5, Sellers announced his plan to retire as the director of the program in June.

Sellers sat down with Carolina Reporter’s Liz White to discuss his future plans, his views on South Carolina’s future and his hopes for the next generation.

(Hear Dr. Sellers describe his experiences in this video).

Q: How long have you been teaching?

I actually started teaching at a college and university in 1969, and that was at Cornell University. And I was there when they were putting together the African American Studies program […] and was a part of the selection process of the first director. […]

Cornell was the second university that actually adopted and established an African American studies program. […]

I have also taught at Shaw University, I’ve taught at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and UNC-Greensboro.

Sellers began working at USC in 1993. He became director of the African-American studies program in 2000, and although he’s retiring as director, he plans to get back to the joy and excitement of teaching.

Q: What are your plans?

Future plans is to do some additional research. There is a wide gap in the publication in the materials on the intersection of race, class and gender in the state of South Carolina, in African American history in South Carolina, certainly in civil rights history. So I would like to do research in those areas and probably do a book or two.

Q: You were originally a mechanical engineer student. What made you change your mind?

I left school, and I had been in a high school that teachers were very important and they were very supportive and I always thought that maybe I would become a professor. Learning about DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Douglass, all these intellectuals and scholars, I thought that maybe that would be some area that I would want to go in so I decided then I would change from mechanical engineering to teaching, and then I kind of fell in love with the college environment. […] The other thing is, is that in 1962 when I went off to Howard University there were not a lot of jobs available for African Americans who were mechanical engineers.

Sellers left Howard University in 1964, to go to Mississippi to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He returned to South Carolina in 1967 to attend S.C. State and found himself caught up in the Orangeburg Massacre a year later.

Q: So you did leave Orangeburg after 1968?

I had no choice. They put a restriction, tied a restriction around my bond, and said that I couldn’t go within five miles of Orangeburg. They weren’t very clear whether or not that was city or county, but it made it even difficult to go home since Bamberg County and Orangeburg County are adjoined. The other thing was, was that it was not safe for me to be in South Carolina. There were some elements in South Carolina that would probably try to do harm, and my parents both felt like I was probably in better stead if I was away from South Carolina than if I were in South Carolina.

Sellers’ involvement in the Orangeburg Massacre and his arrest in 1970, made him a voice for the overlooked tragedy.

Q: How many interviews do you do?

I try not to do very many and that’s because my priority is students. So I end up with a lot of students coming in to do a study here and study there, coming from the class and that kind of thing.

I tend to believe that I am a very humble kind of a person. I don’t have that ego driven around being in the press and all those other kinds of things. That’s one of those obligations sometimes that you have, but it’s not anything that you relish. I don’t’ relish the obligation. I could do well just dealing with the students.

Q: Why retire now at this point?

Well I have been director for roughly seven years and doing the administration part, doing the teaching part, doing the fund-raising part and all those kinds of things that go along with being director, it does not allow you to have the space […] to do the kind of research and begin to sit down to write something that’s scholarly. I’ve done articles and that kind of thing but I really would like to fill in the gaps on African American history in S.C., civil rights history in S.C. […]

I would like to go through and correct some of the distortions that even contemporary historians are putting the African American history and the African American experience in. One of those clear examples is a story like Orangeburg where there is no change from the old myths and distortions and inaccuracies and the lies and the cover-up that they record as history. […]

It’s not for the purpose of creating any animosities; it’s for trying to get a true assessment so that we can talk about, earnestly, what these differences are that we have and create that kind of racial dialogue and communication. That becomes real important, and I think that young people, they want to know what that history was.

Q: What do you think about the movement in South Carolina? Is it still alive?

It think it’s fragmented and I think it’s fragmented because during the period of the ’80s we saw an anti-community attitude on the part of the status quo and the state governments. […]

I think that finally, and I’m talking about over probably the last five years, there have been an effort on a part of the African American community in particular to talk about let’s go back in and reassess the institutions of the African American community. […]

I’m beginning to see community come back and flourish. […]

I’m very optimistic about South Carolina, but I’m probably one of world’s greatest optimists. Some people said that if you’ve been waiting on justice to come for 40 years you just show up your hand and you think it just ain’t going to happen. I’m saying that, well, it took us 40 years to get here, but in two years maybe you know in a year things might change.

Q: What do you think is the biggest problem facing South Carolina?

South Carolina is a legislative kind of state and the legislature is the power in the state of South Carolina. And I think that that worked, and it worked well in the 18th century possibly through the 19th century, but this is the 21st century and that we have to find ways in which we can become more progressive. […] We have to be talking about change, and we have to break the old traditions. We’re still holding on in South Carolina to the confederacy and we need to break out of that.

Q: What’s the question you wish everyone would ask you?

The question that a lot of people ask sometimes is: If you had to do it all over again, would you? And my answer is yes. I’ve had probably one of the most unique experiences of any person in the whole world, in the whole universe.

Here I am coming from South Carolina, rural part of small rural community in South Carolina, and I have the most terrific educational experiences and experiences in general, very rich. I was able to represent SNCC at the White House and actually had a conference with President Lyndon Baines Johnson. And it goes from that to the others. I was able to have as a friend a co-worker the Dr. Kings and the Ella Bakers and the Esau Jenkins and the Victoria De Leyes and the September Clarks and the Modjeska Simpkins, and so many of the luminaries and icons of the civil rights period and civil rights movement. I was able to meet families and communities that taught me how to have faith not only in myself but in my community. […]

It’s very rich that history, and what I think it did was it made me a different person, and I was enriched by those experiences with all these people and they certianly impacted and helped shape who I am today.

(unedited version) By Liz White, Carolina Reporter staff writer


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