Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Legacy of Orangeburg Massacre

BOND: Let’s talk for a while about February 8, 1968. This affected your father. Tell us about that. How did it grab him?

SELLERS: I think I need to preface that with saying that I think that I’m angrier about February 8th than he is. I think he’s come to some reconciliation within his own heart about that day, but it was a day that will forever stain the history of our great state and the state I love and the state I decided to come back to when I finished college, and there remains a lot of unanswered questions about what actually happened that day. But at the end of the day, I think what I take from it is that you had a powerful group of youth who decided that they were going to break down — I believe Jack Nelson and Jack Bass described this as the last vestige of discrimination and Jim Crow’s final hiding place — and just that gumption or that courage, that audacity, for them to believe that they could break down that last barrier of segregation in South Carolina just showed the strength of that generation, that young generation. And then how they were met with just brutal lethal force when they attempted to do so by people who had cast themselves in a light that was something other than that.

For example, Governor McNair was hoping to be a vice presidential nominee during that time and he couched South Carolina as one of the states that was bridging this gap in a state of racial harmony and February 8th blew that up and I think as well blew up his chances to be vice president of the United States. So there’re a lot of different nuances that go, whether it’s political, it’s a political nuance that you have to deal with. It’s people’s lives that you have to deal with. Then you’re talking about all of this happening on a college campus and then you don’t hear about South Carolina State, but two years later, everyone knows about Kent State and I truly believe that if the lessons were learned from Orangeburg, then we could’ve saved a number of lives at Kent.

BOND: How did this engage your father?

SELLERS: My father doesn’t talk about it anymore.

BOND: But you know the history. You know the chronology.

SELLERS: Yes. And you know, my father was so involved in it but yet so removed from it. You know, he stayed on campus that day because there was a tank pointed directly at his house that morning so he felt best and he always says that “accidents do happen,” so he stayed on campus that day and he wasn’t a organizer, per se, of what was going on, and he was down at the field when they decided to protest, but I think you know growing up in SNCC and he knows that night protests are absolutely the worst idea possible, so I don’t think that that was something that he orchestrated but he did get shot and arrested. And I think that egged me on just a little bit in my legal career because I kind of understood how the judiciary system kind of yanked him around and the criminal justice system didn’t quite do him justice until about twenty-five years later —

BOND: When he —

SELLERS: — when he got pardoned.

And interestingly enough, he, still, to this day, I truly believe regrets not being with his wife when his oldest child was born and not being able to be there for my sister’s first year. There’s a great picture where my mom has this huge Afro and my dad has this huge Afro and he’s in this blue correctional get-up and it’s the first time that he saw his daughter. And I don’t know how they got the picture taken, but he’s sitting there looking down and my mom’s looking up at the camera and it’s on my Facebook page. You got Facebook?

BOND: I’m sorry to say yes.

SELLERS: Good. Good. Well, we have to be friends, but it’s on my Facebook page and a lot of people comment on that and for my generation, that’s cool.