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The River of No Return

Cleveland Sellers’ The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC is a chronicle of exactly what the title proclaims: one man’s story of his life in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.  Sellers’ tale is a gripping one: full of frustration, hope, anger, and faith: “Hate and viciousness seemed to be everywhere. Death could come at any time in any form: a bullet between the shoulder blades, a fire bomb in the night, a pistol whipping, a lynching.  I had never experienced such tension and near-paralyzing fear”.  Yet in the end Sellers remained optimistic about the future.  When he finished his book the struggle was far from over (and some say it still is): “We will not stop because we can’t.  I take solace in the face of hardships before me because I know that we are right and those who oppress us and our people are wrong”.

The River of No Return

Cleveland Sellers was born in 1944 in South Carolina.  It would seem that the time and place of his birth could do nothing other than lead him into the Civil Rights struggle in the early 1960s.  He was still a high school student when the first sit-ins began in 1960.  Growing up black in the South was a constant slap in the face to Sellers and thousands like him.  “I wanted to speak out and challenge those who said that blacks were inferior.  I wanted to obliterate the ‘white only’ signs that served as ever-present reminders of our subjugation”.

He got his chance in 1960.  On February 1 of that year, four students from North Carolina’s A&T College staged the first sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro.  Although Sellers lived some 225 miles away, and was only 15 years old, he helped plan a sit-in in his hometown of Denmark, South Carolina, two weeks later.  In many ways, the sit-ins could be said to mark the second phase of the Civil Rights movement.  The first phase had been initiated when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thrusting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into both the national spotlight and the leadership of the movement.  But the sit-ins marked a new turn: young blacks were beginning to take an active role in the demand for equal rights.  They were breaking from the organizations of their parents—NAACP and SCLC—and formed a new organization of their own: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC quickly distinguished itself from other Civil Rights organizations is two ways: its members were young and militant.

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