Sunday, November 25, 2007
Nov 25, 2007COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Cleveland Sellers called himself a black militant in his autobiography, and he was convicted - and later pardoned - of sparking a 1968 civil rights protest in which three students were gunned down by state troopers.
These days, however, he has a doctorate in education and is director of the African American Studies program at the University of South Carolina.
On Dec. 3, the 64-year-old man will become an Eagle Scout, an achievement he hopes will add an important layer to a personal narrative that to many people will always be linked to the protest known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
"People have tried to create these monsters and make us something that we weren't because it helped them make their case," Sellers said during a recent interview at his college office. "I think it's important for people to know who I am and maybe through the process that will help lower the barrier and lower the kind of imagery they have of me."
Sellers was on the path to becoming an Eagle Scout until his paperwork was lost nearly four decades ago.
He credits scouting for his appreciation of nature, and a sense of orderliness. He fondly recalls attending the Boy Scouts' National Jamboree in 1960, and thinks he still could cook up a mean coffee-can souffle. Sellers has helped start a troop named after Camp Brownlee, the blacks-only scout camp he attended as a young man.
The men who led the troop he once belonged to were father figures, which is what many youth lack today, Sellers said.
"I look around now and there's no organizations for them other than the gang banging and that kind of stuff," he said. "I just think we need to take another look at the Boy Scouts as an alternative to the idleness and the crime."
But after his formative years as a scout, Sellers became best known as the only person convicted of inciting a riot following the Feb. 8, 1968, Orangeburg shootings, which took place during protests over a bowling alley owner's refusal to allow blacks inside. Three people were killed and 27, including Sellers, were wounded.
He spent seven months in jail, but 23 years after his conviction he was pardoned.
After leaving prison, Sellers worked as a coordinator for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and sat in on planning sessions with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
While the Orangeburg shooting may not be well known outside South Carolina, Columbia University history professor Manning Marable said it was an important part of civil rights history. He said Sellers is an example of a leader who battled segregation on the local level.
"I think Cleve Sellers embodies many of the strengths of the grass roots organizers who didn't seek the limelight, but who had tremendous respect among working and poor people locally," Marable said.
Sellers acknowledges his place in civil rights history.
"There's a certain level of humility that makes me reluctant about being the face of Orangeburg, but I figure if nobody's the face then the story doesn't get told," Sellers said.
While the state has formally apologized for the Orangeburg shootings, Sellers believes the event still merits a closer look by authorities. The FBI, however, has not added the shootings to the list of civil rights-era cases it has reopened.
"I say Orangeburg is the litmus test for race," Seller said. "If we can't be honest and genuine and get to the facts and get to the trust and get justice, then how can we talk about anything else?"