Civil-rights activist stepping down from Voorhees College

S.C. civil-rights activist Cleveland Sellers said Thursday he is stepping down as president of Voorhees College, citing serious health challenges.

The 70-year-old Sellers, who was shot during the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, has run the 118-year-old, historically black college in Denmark since 2008. He will remain at the school through next spring. A search committee will be formed to find a new president.

Sellers said he always has been involved in causes and movements of people coming together for the good of a community or institution.

“You get into those kinds of positions, you hate to leave them,” Sellers said. “But, sometimes, you have to go.”

During his tenure, Sellers said Voorhees has reconnected its relationship with the Episcopal Church. A new living-and-learning center is scheduled to open on campus next fall, he said, adding the school also brought back its traveling concert and gospel choir.

Modeled after the Tuskegee Institute, Voorhees was founded in 1897 to educate African Americans. Since 1924, it has been affiliated with the S.C. Diocese of the Episcopal Church.

Like many other historically black colleges, Voorhees has had fewer students in recent years. Over the past decade, enrollment has dropped by a third to about 470 in 2014.

But, Sellers said Thursday, historically black colleges remain relevant.

The students who attend the schools today are similar to those who attended 60 years ago, he said. Often, they are first-generation college students who were raised in low-income households.

Sellers directed the University of South Carolina’s African-American Studies program before becoming president of Voorhees, which is located in his hometown, 50 miles south of Columbia.

Sellers, who has written six publications, said he might look at writing again in retirement. He did not specify the health challenges that he faces.

Sellers was shot during the Orangeburg Massacre on Feb. 8, 1968, when three students were killed and 27 injured during a S.C. State University protest against a segregated bowling alley.

Sellers, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the only person imprisoned in connection with the incident, spending seven months in jail. Twenty-five years later, he was pardoned.

“You had to overcome and learn how to forgive, but not forget,” Sellers said.

Charleston author Jack Bass covered the Orangeburg Massacre and Sellers’s trial. He later wrote a book about the event, adding Sellers was made a “scapegoat.”

Bass lauded Sellers as having tremendous strength and holding no animosity toward anyone. “Cleveland Sellers really is a shining example of how someone overcomes adversity.”

This year, after the June 17 racially motivated slaying of nine African Americans at a Charleston church, race relations in South Carolina again were in the spotlight. The eyes of the nation were on the state, so it was forced to act, Sellers said. In July, lawmakers removed the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.

But, Sellers added, race relations in the state will not heal without a serious investigation into the Orangeburg Massacre.

“Orangeburg is the litmus test for South Carolina,” he said.

Nosizwe Sellers, Seller’s 42-year-old daughter, attended her father’s retirement announcement Wednesday.

“He’s ‘Daddy’ first,” she said, adding her father is modest, proud and the epitome of an awesome father. “That’s his greatest legacy.”

When she was growing up, Nosizwe Sellers said she was sheltered from her father’s civil-rights activities. Instead, she recalled her father attending her school and sports events.

Voorhees student Chantel Chandler, 19, said she is sad to see Sellers leave.

The mass communications student from Delaware said Voorhees appealed to her because its small class sizes allow her to interact with teachers.

As a member of the Student Government Association, Chandler said she interacts with Sellers often, talking about how to improve the school.

“He’s going to leave a lasting legacy here.”

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

Cleveland Sellers

The Voorhees College president

Hometown: Denmark

Children: Nosizwe Sellers, a doctor; Cleveland L. Sellers III, a preacher; Bakari Sellers, a lawyer and former state representative

Civil rights activist: Sellers became involved in the civil-rights movement after African-American teenager Emmett Till was slain in Mississippi in 1955, after allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was shot during the Orangeburg Massacre and jailed for seven months. He was pardoned 25 years later.

Education: Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., bachelor’s degree; Harvard University, master’s degree; University of North Carolina-Greensboro, doctorate

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