Orangeburg Massacre: Bakari Sellers says 'way more angry than my father'

Feb 06, 2018
PANTHER 2017 fall bakari sellers 11-28 visit

Bakari Sellers speaks to multimedia students at Claflin. (Panther photo)

Even though the Orangeburg Massacre happened before he was born, Bakari Sellers has been greatly affected by that fateful event.

On Feb. 8, 1968, after three nights of escalating racial tension over efforts by students of then-South Carolina State College and others to desegregate the local All-Star Bowling alley, three students were killed and 28 others were injured when South Carolina Highway Patrol troopers opened fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters at the head of the campus. Killed were 18-year-old S.C. State students Henry R. Smith and Samuel Hammond Jr., and 17-year-old high school student Delano B. Middleton of Orangeburg.

Sellers’ father, Dr. Cleveland Sellers, was a student at South Carolina State at the time and was later the only one convicted of rioting and jailed in the wake of the incident. Cleveland Sellers, who was wounded on that night in 1968, later was pardoned and wrote an autobiography, “The River of No Return,” which recounts his experiences.

Speaking in 2007 at the memorial service for the three students, Bakari Sellers said: “This event took place 16 years before I was born, but this day has become the most important day of my life.”

At the time the youngest person ever elected to the S.C. House of Representatives at 22 in 2006, Sellers has had an eventful decade since that speech. The Denmark native concluded service in the House, ran for lieutenant governor as the Democratic nominee, served as a key figure in President  Barack Obama’s campaigns, and is today a Columbia attorney and political commentator for CNN.

But the Orangeburg Massacre remains.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary, Sellers discussed the Orangeburg Massacre with Claflin multimedia students.

He said his father was deeply impacted by the event and hurts to this day.
“If you look at where Henry (Smith) was shot, there looked to be some intent, and so my father believes that the bullet was meant for him,” Sellers said. “It kills him to this day.”

 As a civil rights organizer at the time, Cleveland Sellers was wrongly blamed for what happened in Orangeburg, Bakari said. “Imagine having to live with that” – all those people shot and you are blamed.

The pain that his father went through was felt throughout the Sellers family for a long time. Cleveland Sellers’ conviction made life difficult for his family and put them in tight spots.

“It was very difficult for my family growing up for a long time because when your father is a felon, it makes for difficult situations.”

“I’m way more angry about 1968 than my father,” Bakari said.

Bakari Sellers as a lawmaker called for a state investigation of the Orangeburg incident. He echoes that call today.

“There has been no justice.”

 And there is too little realization elsewhere of what happened 50 years ago. “Nobody knows about Orangeburg.”

 The Orangeburg Massacre was part of a traumatic 1968, which also saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

 “Tom Brokaw always said it (1968) reminded him of ‘Boom,’” Sellers said. “He said, “1968 was boom because it felt like the world was on fire.’”

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