In MLK address, civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers implores students to stay strong in contentious times

On a typical Martin Luther King Jr. day at Kenyon, the celebrations might center on how much the black community has achieved since the end of segregation and the Jim Crow era. But, as President Sean Decatur said in Rosse Hall Monday afternoon, considering the United States’ tense political climate, this was “far from a typical MLK day.”

Monday’s events started off at 9 a.m. with an MLK day breakfast in Peirce Dining Hall with community leaders, followed by a day of dialogue program at 3 p.m. in Rosse Hall. Ted Mason also held a Discrimination Advisor storytime session in Peirce lounge on Tuesday where he spoke about the themes of MLK day during common hour.

The keynote speaker on Monday was Dr. Cleveland L. Sellers Jr., the president emeritus of Voorhees College in South Carolina and a veteran civil rights activist.

In his address, Sellers recounted the horrors of segregation and racism in the 1950’s and 60’s. Sellers also referenced the inflammatory rhetoric President-Elect Donald Trump used during his campaign, saying that it legitimized and reinvigorated racist hate groups in America. The President-Elect has recently made headlines for attacking Representative John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a civil rights icon, and his nominee for attorney general, Representative Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, has sparked controversy because he has faced accusations of racism in the past.

Sellers told a particularly poignant story about the Orangeburg massacre, during which nine police officers opened fire on a group protesting a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1968; Sellers was shot by a police officer at the event. Three people died, and another 27 were injured. The officers were acquitted of all charges. Sellers said he was later falsely charged with inciting a riot at the Orangeburg bowling alley and served seven months in federal prison.

After recounting his story, Sellers added that what is happening in today’s America — the growing number of white nationalist groups and racist rhetoric — is not very different from what he saw in 1964 and 1965. “Ain’t that a pity?” he said. Sellers emphasized that students must have hope and keep fighting for change whenever they see mistreatment and inequality.

Yiyi Ma ’20 thought Sellers’ speech lent Kenyon students a sobering perspective.  “At the end of the talk Dr. Sellers stated that, in reality, things have not changed drastically,” Ma said. “Hateful rhetoric on national television, bias in the workplace and political bias are all concurrent issues today.”

After Seller’s speech, a panel comprising of Professor of English Janet McAdams, Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies Jacqueline McAllister, and Emma Schurink ’17, president of Indigenous Nations at Kenyon, discussed the importance of liberal arts, activism and human rights. There were no African Americans on the panel, which sparked some controversy among students, such as Chloe Hannah-Drullard ’20, who wished there was more diversity.

“The fact that not a single person of color appeared on the panel meant, in truth, that no one on the panel was an ‘expert in the field,’” Hannah-Drullard said. “The offense went over many people’s heads, but the tension in the room was palpable and, in my opinion, warranted.”

Claire Oleson ’19 was also unsatisfied with the lack of diversity on the panel.

“I take some issue with the all-white panel and also feel that, being a white person, this is not my area to speak with authority at all,” Claire Oleson ’19 said. “I appreciate the speakers Kenyon brings in and I’m glad MLK day is acknowledged, but I think that if it’s going to be a useful celebration and reflection, MLK day itself needs to be more about learning and evolving than a comfortable repetition created to assure us that we are not racist or are moving beyond it by passively saying it exists without actually saying that we exist inside it.”

Emily Birnbaum and Kevin Crawford contributed reporting.

Bill Gardner

Bill Gardner

Bill Gardner is a junior and the current Associate Managing Editor of the Collegian.

You can reach him via email at
Bill Gardner