Cleveland Sellers portrait.jpg

Cleveland Sellers Jr., on the South Carolina State University campus two weeks before the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Orangeburg Massacre. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Cleveland Sellers still has faith, but forgive him if it’s a little shaken these days.

Fifty years ago, almost to the day, he was shot by a highway patrolman and set up as the fall guy in South Carolina’s most violent incident of the civil rights era.

History eventually vindicated him, the state pardoned him and his generation changed the world. Or so they thought.

Unfortunately, Sellers sees a lot of parallels to those contentious times resurfacing today.

“Yeah, we’ve made a U-turn and headed back fast,” he says.

Veterans of the civil rights movement, Sellers says, recognized the trend beginning with attacks on affirmative action and the unceremonious gutting of the Voting Rights Act. But it’s been coming ever since a black man was elected president.

In response, there have been systemic abuses of power: voter ID laws designed to diminish black turnout, gerrymandered political districts to dilute their influence.

Casual bigotry has resurfaced: a state Republican Party activist referred to a gorilla as one of then-First Lady Michelle Obama’s ancestors.

And, ultimately, Charlottesville, Va. — where white supremacists went on parade, and one killed a counter-protester.

Suddenly, racism was back in style.

“If it wasn’t normalized by then, it was by the comments about ‘good people,’ ” Sellers says. “At that point, I just said, ‘Here we go, again.’ ”

A massacre

Sellers has seen too much in his 73 years to be surprised.

When those people in Charlottesville held a torchlight vigil the night before their march, it was all too familiar.

“It was like an old Klan gathering,” Sellers says. “The night before, they’d go out in the woods and burn a cross. Then they’d go riding and intimidating people, shooting into their houses.”

He knows because he lived through it. Sellers grew up in the segregated South and had to fight for his basic constitutional rights. He organized his first lunch counter sit-in at 15, worked on voter registration drives and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Howard University.

Sellers came home to South Carolina after graduation, settled in Orangeburg, and there watched his worst nightmares unfold.

On Feb. 8, 1968, students at S.C. State were protesting a local bowling alley’s refusal to integrate. That night, they lit a bonfire on campus; the governor called in the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. Sellers heard the sirens and went to check it out.

Soon, three people were dead and more than two-dozen wounded — all for the heinous crime of protesting segregation.

Then-Gov. Robert McNair blamed the entire incident on Sellers, called him an “outside agitator” even though he’d been born and raised here and had no part in organizing the protest. He’d simply been targeted as a trouble-maker for being a civil rights activist.

Two years after the state trumped-up charges against him, Sellers went to prison for seven months.

Last week, officials around the state called on South Carolina to finally investigate the Orangeburg Massacre and exonerate those initially blamed for the violence. Sellers has repeatedly made the same request for 50 years.

“The Orangeburg Massacre is the litmus test of race relations in South Carolina,” Sellers says. “If it’s not addressed, you’ll never get to the point of healing.”

Old times forgotten?

He had hoped this strife was mostly behind us, but now Sellers is simply fascinated by how aggressive prejudice has become — and how adamantly some refuse to see it.

The state should have conducted a proper investigation of the massacre years ago, but the Legislature opposed it. Although the state lied — students didn't shoot at the patrolmen or charge them, nor were they "rioting" off-campus — some lawmakers argued that’s in the past and there’s no use dredging it up.

Mind you, these are some of the same people who feel the constant need to celebrate a 19th century war.

There is a fundamental lack of understanding — not to mention empathy — about the civil rights movement, and what it was all about. Sellers will discuss that Tuesday when he speaks to former Mayor Joe Riley’s class at The Citadel.

It’s free and open to the public, and a lot of people need to hear it.

“We wanted to make America better,” Sellers says. “It’s not just about civil rights, it is human rights.”

Just a few years ago, it might have seemed unimaginable to think those lessons had been forgotten or constitutional rights would be in danger once again.

But now, Sellers is left to wonder just how far backward we might go.

“We have to be careful to make sure we don’t go back to having to ask to vote again,” he says.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.