Cleveland Sellers was born in Denmark, South Carolina, to a working class family in 1944. He attended local schools and completed the requirements to become an Eagle Scout, but racism prevented him from being acknowledged with this honor.
He enrolled in Howard University in 1962, where he met and became a friend of Stokely Carmichael. Sellers subsequently went to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) along with Carmichael, and he was present when the term “Black Power” was officially used in Greenwood, Mississippi, after Carmichael’s release from jail. In 1965, Sellers became the program director of SNCC, helping to organize several campaigns against discrimination and poverty in the South. He also was the first member of SNCC to refuse to be inducted into the U.S. Army after being drafted, launching a trend and giving SNCC inroads into anti-war work.
In 1968, Sellers was charged and sentenced to seven months in prison for “incitement to riot” after the Orangeburg Massacre, the shooting death of three African-American men and the wounding of 27 others by South Carolina state troopers. He was the only individual to be incarcerated, and this incident was the first over which federal charges were filed on police officials for use of excessive force. In prison, Sellers wrote his autobiography and refused to have his criminal record expunged after his release, saying that it is a point of pride for him.
Sellers went on to receive a master’s in Education from Harvard University in 1970, and is currently the President of Voorhees College in his hometown of Denmark, South Carolina.