A Citadel cadet down in front had a question for Cleveland Sellers, a survivor of the bloodiest civil rights event in South Carolina history:
"Being faced with hate and violence every single day during the civil rights movement, how tempting was it to give in and fight fire with fire?"
Sellers, a civil rights leader and former president of Voorhees College, was at The Citadel's Holliday Alumni Center as a guest of former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. Now in retirement, Riley co-teaches a history class at the public military college, with special guest lectures open to the public.
The title of Sellers' guest talk Tuesday afternoon was "My Walk Through Civil Rights History," and it had a time stamp on it: Fifty years ago this month, state troopers opened fire on unarmed student activists from South Carolina State University who were protesting a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg.
Sellers received a wound in his left armpit that night as a hail of buckshot rained down on the students. Twenty-eight were injured, and three died: Samuel Hammond, Jr., Delano Middleton and Henry Smith.
That wasn't the beginning or end of Sellers' career in activism. He helped organize protests, marches and sit-ins as a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee throughout the 1960s.
In those days, he said, many civil rights activists drove cars with a switch to turn off the tail lights in case they were being followed at night. Some also avoided placing lamps in their living rooms that would cast a silhouette on their front curtains.
So when the cadet asked Sellers about the temptation to fight, he spoke first of practicality, not of love.
"One of the things my grandmother told me is, 'Don't be foolish,'" Sellers said. "When you look at nonviolent direct action, we weren't cupping and exposing the buttocks and bringing your knees up to your chest because we liked somebody beating on us or we wanted to retaliate. We were doing that because that was the safest and secure way of getting out of that circumstance."
"You learn how to survive," Sellers added.
The cadet who asked the question, freshman Joseph Field, arrived at the college from Iowa last year and said Riley's class has been an immersion in South Carolina history.
"It's really cool to see someone who's actually made history," Field said afterward. "I just think it's crazy, they'd see all that happen to their friends and they'd still be loving ... that they'd have the discipline to be peaceful."
Fifty years out, the Orangeburg Massacre is an oft-forgotten chapter in civil rights history and South Carolina history. It is mentioned once in the eighth grade in South Carolina's current social studies standards; it is not mentioned at all in a proposed set of standards for 2020.
Sellers bears the marks of that history on his body. At age 73, he aims to keep the memory alive.
"There needs to be restitution. There needs to be contrition," Sellers said. "There needs to be some concern about killing young people, unarmed, using lethal buckshot."