Ex-Black Militant Becomes Eagle Scout
Sunday, November 25, 2007
(11-25) 15:16 PST Columbia, S.C. (AP) --
Years before civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers got caught up in the deadly 1968 protest known as the Orangeburg Massacre, he was on the path to the elite rank of Eagle Scout — until his paperwork was lost.
Next month, the 64-year-old, who called himself a black militant in his autobiography, will formally collect the honor. He said he hopes it will add an important layer to a personal narrative that, to many people, will always be linked to his conviction in the civil rights protest at a historically black college that ended with three students gunned down by state troopers.
"People have tried to create these monsters and make us something that we weren't because it helped them make their case," said Sellers, the director of the African American Studies program at the University of South Carolina. "I think it's important for people to know who I am and maybe through the process that will help lower the barrier and lower the kind of imagery they have of me."
During a recent interview at his college office, he credited Scouting for his appreciation of nature, and a sense of orderliness. He fondly recalls attending the Boy Scouts' National Jamboree in 1960, and thinks he still could cook up a mean coffee-can souffle.
The men who led the troop he once belonged to were father figures — something many youths lack today, Sellers said.
"I look around now and there's no organizations for them other than the gang banging and that kind of stuff," he said. "I just think we need to take another look at the Boy Scouts as an alternative to the idleness and the crime."
Sellers has helped start a troop named after Camp Brownlee, the blacks-only Scout camp he attended as a young man. A formal Eagle ceremony will be held Dec. 3 in his hometown of Denmark — 20 miles from Orangeburg — more than four decades after he earned the rank, given to only about 5 percent of all Boy Scouts. Since 1912, nearly 1.9 million Eagles have been awarded, according to Boy Scout officials.
After his years as a Scout, Sellers earned a doctorate in education and dedicated his life to improving the lives of black South Carolinians. During his early activism days, Sellers worked as a coordinator for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and sat in on planning sessions with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But he became best known as the only person convicted of a riot charge for being at the Feb. 8, 1968, Orangeburg shootings, which took place during protests over a bowling alley owner's refusal to allow blacks inside. Three people were killed and 27, including Sellers, were wounded.
He spent seven months in prison, but 23 years after his conviction he was pardoned.
While the Orangeburg shooting may not be well known outside South Carolina, Columbia University history professor Manning Marable said it was an important part of civil rights history. He called Sellers an example of a leader who battled segregation on the local level.
"I think Cleve Sellers embodies many of the strengths of the grass roots organizers who didn't seek the limelight, but who had tremendous respect among working and poor people locally," Marable said.
Sellers acknowledges his place in civil rights history.
"There's a certain level of humility that makes me reluctant about being the face of Orangeburg, but I figure if nobody's the face then the story doesn't get told," Sellers said.
While the state has formally apologized for the Orangeburg shootings, Sellers believes the event still merits a closer look by authorities. The FBI, however, has not added the shootings to the list of civil rights-era cases it has reopened.
"I say Orangeburg is the litmus test for race," Seller said. "If we can't be honest and genuine and get to the facts and get to the trust and get justice, then how can we talk about anything else?"
(This version CORRECTS that Sellers was convicted of a riot charge, instead of inciting a riot; and CORRECTS that the sessions Sellers attended with King did not take place after prison.)