Blog Post by Graduate Assistant Kelly Doyle
On Thursday evening, September 18th, the Avery Research Center celebrated the re-opening of a significant exhibit curated by Mr. Curtis Franks, Dr. Cleveland L. Sellers: The SNCC Years, Coming through the Fire. Dr. Sellers attended the opening as our honored guest, and spoke about his experiences working with SNCC. During his remarks, Dr. Sellers shared his philosophy concerning leadership and mobilizing within social activist groups, and eloquently conveyed the fear and sacrifice that the fight for Civil Rights required. Dr. Sellers’s words revealed the energy of the Movement in a way that our current social moment would greatly benefit from. The exhibit features letters, photographs, newspaper articles, and ephemera that document Dr. Sellers’s involvement with the 1964 Freedom Summer, marking its 50th anniversary this year. It was a truly unique experience to engage with this exhibit after hearing such moving and enlightening reflections about this period from Dr. Sellers.
Born in 1944 in Denmark, South Carolina, Dr. Cleveland Sellers began his political and social activism at an early age. As a freshman at Howard University in 1962, Sellers joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), a campus student organization, that was designated a “Friend of SNCC” a (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) affiliate. In 1964 Sellers began working full-time for SNCC as an organizer and participant in the Mississippi Summer Project. During this time he registered voters and organized Freedom Schools. When James Meredith was shot in 1966 in his March against Fear in Mississippi, Sellers joined the movement, along with other activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Floyd McKissick, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to complete Meredith’s journey across the state. In 1967 Sellers was arrested and charged for a variety of offenses in connection with his suspected organization of the protests against segregation in Orangeburg, South Carolina, which came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Sellers was the only person who was arrested and served jail time for the events, and he was not pardoned until 1993. Dr. Sellers now serves as the president of Voorhees College, a HBCU, Denmark, South Carolina.
What I found most poignant were Dr. Sellers’s remarks about the responsibility of the current generation to continue organizing, and his assertion that the fight for change is not yet over in America. Dr. Sellers recalled his experiences with Mississippi families taking him in and providing sustenance during his tireless pursuit for equality during his youth. He emphasized that those individuals, who gave and shared all they could to help him and those like him, were equally important to the cause of civil rights. This is a powerful and timeless message: the fight for social equality can be impacted through seemingly small instances of leadership and sacrifice. This insight impressed upon me the need for a new generation of socially conscious activists to be involved as organizers of a new movement and to generate support for those organizers within the community. As a twenty something myself, I recognize the tendency towards complacency in my own generation, however, as Dr. Sellers stressed, we are in a critical moment which warrants attention and action.
Dr. Cleveland L. Sellers: The SNCC Years, Coming through the Fire is on display in the Avery Research Center’s Cox Gallery through January 31, 2015.