Race in America

Southern cities launch series of civil rights exhibits

Participants march in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965
Participants march in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 Library of Congress

WASHINGTON — South Carolina educator Cleveland Sellers Jr. said he was performing typical "fetch it, intern" tasks. But his behind-the-scenes busywork was for an event that helped turn the corner for the civil rights movement: The March on Washington.

In that same year, three black students peacefully walked through the doors of the University of South Carolina. Four young girls died in the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala. church, resulting in citywide riots. And the NAACP field secretary was shot outside his Jackson, Miss. home.

For the civil rights movement, 1963 was a pinnacle year.

With the 50th anniversary around the corner, six mayors from Southern cities announced at a press conference in Washington on Friday a collaborative commemoration of the nation-altering events of that year.

The celebration will consist of year-wide events, traveling exhibits and a "heritage trail" linking historic landmarks in the six main participating cities. These reminders of the groundwork activists lay for equality will be sprinkled throughout Columbia, S.C.; District of Columbia; Selma, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Jackson, Miss. Other participating locations are expected, according to the press release.

"It's not lost on me that my opportunities were very much bought and paid for by the hard work, blood, sweat and tears of those who came before me," Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in an interview.

Among those was Sellers, who helped organize sit-ins at a lunch counter in Denmark, S.C. and met Martin Luther King, Jr., during a march across Mississippi. Now president of Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C., Sellers said grassroots organization was the soul of the civil rights movement.

"Sit-ins mobilized students at predominantly black colleges and universities," he said, "and those students gave life and legs to a fledging civil rights movement."

And when Benjamin matriculated in the University of South Carolina, it was 25 years after its integration in 1963. He was stepping into a drastically different environment, he said, then the generation before him.

This is symbolic of the six mayors' overarching mission: to ensure the details of America's segregated past are not lost on the younger generation.

"Kids who are now 18 or 19, they know the brief excerpts about Rosa Parks and Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream Speech,' but in many ways that's the extent to what they know about civil rights," said Bobby Donaldson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina, who teaches civil rights courses. "They seem to know very little about the multiple struggles that were involved in the civil rights movement and the significant struggles people encountered."

In South Carolina, the 50th year commemoration events will have a strong focus on educating youth, Benjamin said. Additionally, he said, he hopes the events will spark frank dialogue on the issues of race, poverty and the division of the socioeconomic classes.

"While we're not yet where we ought to be, we're not where we used to be," he said.

Sellers — who was the only man arrested in the "Orangeburg Massacre," which killed three students at South Carolina State University, and was pardoned 25 years after he was released from a seven-month incarceration — agreed.

"There has been some change, but there's still a tremendous amount of work to do in South Carolina."


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