A biography of a lesser-known but influential leader in the civil rights movement and his central role in one of its most violent events.
On Feb. 7, 1968, a protest of a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina, devolved into violence. Patrolmen fired at the protesters, killing three and injuring 28. The event, dubbed the Orangeburg Massacre, has been overshadowed by other high-profile events of 1968, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. chief among them. But journalist Parker thoughtfully pinpoints the incident as a signature moment in the civil rights movement, pivoting the narrative around Cleveland Sellers Jr. (b. 1944), an activist who was wrongly accused of inciting a riot and imprisoned for seven months. Growing up in Denmark, South Carolina, Sellers was moved to activism by the murder of Emmett Till, quickly rising up the ranks of the Southern Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and becoming close to black leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and King, who officiated his wedding. At the time of the Orangeburg Massacre, Parker explains, the movement was fraying and factionalized, split between focus on nonviolent protest and the more global emphasis on Black Power. The irony of Sellers’ persecution is that he tried to discourage the Orangeburg protest, feeling that taking on one business was wasted energy. But the stigma of his conviction hung on Sellers until he was pardoned in 1993. Parker is a workmanlike reporter, and Sellers sometimes feels underdrawn, but the author weaves context about the larger movement into Sellers’ story and doesn’t soft-pedal his challenges: In recent years, he struggled to revitalize Voorhees College, a historically black college in his hometown, but a push for an endowment fund netted only $55,000.
An illuminating if sometimes-flat study of both a man and a decadeslong civil rights struggle.