My daughter is a college freshman, as is author Adam Parker’s, which makes both of us (and any parent, for that matter) appreciate how head-shakingly unusual it is and was for an 18-19-year old Cleveland Sellers Jr. to be such an intentional, committed, savvy and brave activist during his first year at Howard University. Parker’s new book recounting Sellers’ remarkable life as an “agitator,” civil rights stalwart and educator makes this abundantly clear.
While most 19-year-olds are figuring out class schedules and going to parties, Sellers, who’d left the small town of Denmark, S.C., for college in 1962, was leading voter registration efforts in Washington, D.C., facing down flame-throwing, bayonet-wielding National Guardsmen in Maryland and masterminding the bold strategies for Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.
It was a heady time, and a dangerous, tumultuous time. The brutal murder of Emmett Till left an indelible mark on a then 10-year-old Sellers, and his first college summer in Mississippi included combing fields and woods in the dead of night (“smelling for rotted flesh”) searching for three missing civil rights leaders. But the prescient, engaged young Cleve was determined to be at the epicenter of the acronym soup of civil rights groups (SNCC, NAG, SCLC, NAACP), alongside Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, Fannie Lou Hamer and others. His father, a respected entrepreneur in Denmark, wrote Sellers concerned notes, addressed to “My dear son” and signing off, “Please don’t be a Dead Hero.”
As Parker, a veteran reporter at The Post and Courier, illustrates in "Outside Agitator," Sellers has been a remarkably bright, driven, instrumental leader from his early adolescent years to his now elder days, as president of Voorhees College. The idea for the book grew from an extended newspaper profile that Parker wrote on Sellers in 2008, and on previous reporting on the Orangeburg Massacre.
Indeed, beyond being the father of CNN political commentator and former S.C. legislator Bakari Sellers, Cleveland Sellers’ name is best known in relation to that 1968 tragedy, one of the civil rights movement’s most violent 10 seconds that left three black students dead and 28 injured, and for which the 23-year old Sellers, alone, was scapegoated (a SLED official called the even-keeled, generally mild-mannered Sellers “the biggest nigger in the crowd”) and served prison time.
“I was interested in how the thread of this distinguished man’s life can be a cohesive element or lens for looking at the larger civil rights movement,” says Parker.
That lens perhaps gives a clearer view of the South, he suggests, given Sellers full-circle trajectory from growing up in the Jim Crow era in a vibrant, predominantly African-American rural town, to his activism days in various urban cities, imprisonment and, ultimately, the furthering of his education. This would take him back to Denmark, where he would assume the helm of Voorhees, an HBCU (historically black college and university) and an anchor of a city that had seen its fortunes fade.
“Adam’s book adds to the fullness and breadth of Cleve’s life, and goes beyond his activism to include his exemplary record in scholarship and as an educator,” says Jack Bass, co-author of the authoritative book on the Orangeburg Massacre, who has known Sellers since the 1960s.
“It also has a lot to do with the history of South Carolina, and gives insight to someone I think of as a true hero, a man of great integrity and courage. Cleve has overcome more obstacles and punishment than anyone I can think of. His is truly a life well-lived, and Parker conveys this.”