‘You will inherit a broken world’

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LEWISTON – Since Cleveland Sellers’ days as a leader of the civil rights movement, America has failed to learn.

As they did in Vietnam, men are again fighting a war founded on lies, he said. More people are sinking into poverty. Leaders are cold.

“We can walk in space but we can’t evacuate poor folk from a predicted catastrophe,” the teacher and activist told Bates College students Monday. “You will inherit a broken world.”

The challenge is to act, Sellers said.

The 62-year-old activist’s comments were the centerpiece of two days of events linked to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at the college. They included workshops, performances and panel discussions.

Sellers spoke for more than an hour Monday, sometimes choking up as he recalled events from the 1960s.

A comrade of King’s, Sellers helped organize the legendary march on Washington and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

He also started the Vietnam-era protest that led thousands of African American men – including fighter Mohammed Ali – to refuse induction into the U.S. Army.

Sellers was a college sophomore from Denmark, S.C., when he joined what he referred to simply as “The Movement.”

He was moved by the 1955 Mississippi murder of Emmett Till, an African American man who was shot in the head for whistling at a white woman.

The all-white jury’s acquittal of the two murderers ignited anger across the South and drew worldwide criticism.

As Sellers described Till’s death and others, he paused and wept.

“You don’t need to apologize for what you feel,” John McClendon III, an associate professor of African American Studies at Bates, later said.

It’s part of the passion that fueled the movement, McClendon said.

As Sellers described the era – of Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus, the murder of activists and of the dogs and water hoses used to restrain passive crowds – his language seemed to take on a modern flavor.

When describing the bombs hurled into churches and homes, Sellers talked of “terrorists.” And he offered his own updated take on the man who led the fight against the killers.

Too many people have oversimplified King and the movement.

Modern writers and documentarians portray him as “a larger than life, fictitious, superman,” he said.

To focus on his charisma trivializes the thought and hard work he and so many others did. It also trivializes the people who followed.

It wasn’t all “spellbinding speeches and blind faith,” Sellers said.

One of King’s greatest talents was in making people uncomfortable, he said. He knew how to fight the complacency that prevents people from acting.

It’s a complacency that Sellers continues to keep at bay.

“White privilege is still a reality,” said Sellers, who still lives in Denmark and teaches at the University of South Carolina.

Sellers bashed the war in Iraq and the search for weapons of mass destruction – “spell O I L.”

Mostly, he seemed to worry that the direction of the country is wrong.

The U.S. Supreme Court has turned so far to the right, Sellers suggested that if Brown versus Board of Education came to them, the infamous “separate but equal” decision might never have been overturned as it was in 1954.

“Today, making money is more important than integrity and honesty,” he said. “The America of democracy and of justice for all” might not survive.

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