Cleveland Sellers Remembers the March on Washington

Cleveland Sellers outside of the Atlanta draft office after refusing the draft, undated -
Cleveland Sellers outside of the Atlanta draft office after refusing the draft, undated –

My name is Cleveland Sellers, and I was born in l944 in South Carolina. In the summer of 63, I was a student at Howard University, staying with my aunt in Washington, DC a couple of blocks away from the campus. I had a scholarship and worked as a trainer in the athletic department. That summer, I also had a job at a local Hot Shoppes drive-in restaurant.

I had arrived at Howard in the fall of ’62 as a freshman, and I was trying to find the activists on campus. One of the reasons I went to Howard was because it was a black college, and there would be a large number of activists. I came from a state where the state didn’t want to pay for a high school for students of color, so they paid Voorhees College to take the high school students. The students at Voorhees had a sit-in. I was allowed to go to the discussions, but I was too young to sit in. They didn’t allow any women to go either. The school at first promised to let them use the bus, but then the local business people contacted the president and said don’t bus them. So the students marched from the campus to downtown to the drugstore they tried to desegregate. They were arrested. The school priest went down to get them out, and he negotiated with the cops to get them out.

I was a child of the Emmett Till era; my social consciousness comes from that.
So at Howard, I was meeting students participating in voter registration, demos at the justice department, sit-ins, voting rights in M.S., Danville, and Albany.

I met John Batiste; John, on occasion, would take me down to the D.C. SNCC office, so I met the SNCC people.

There was a meeting on campus, and I could join NAG (Nonviolent Action Group, Howard’s SNCC affiliate. I met Courtland, and Stokely, and Charlie Cobb, and some of the others. I began to spend a lot of time with Carmichael. We got more involved in D.C. area issues. NAG used to do rent strikes, joining with CORE. At Howard, we had Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X as speakers.

There was some resistance from the university to inviting Rustin because he was considered a member of the communist party. The administration resisted, but we insisted.

After I finished work that summer, I decided to volunteer for the March and was assigned to the headquarters tent on the grounds of the Washington Monument, where the buses would park and let out their passengers. I ended up making signs and cheese sandwiches–about 100,000 sandwiches and 200,0000 signs.

We escorted celebrities to the stage.

We worked till midnight the night before the March and came back at 6am the next day. The March was supposed to start at ten, but at about 8am, there was hardly anybody there.

But I believed they were coming.

We had expected 100,000, and after a while, it got so busy you could hardly see the end of the crowd. The trains were coming in, buses, and people were marching down to the starting point. I still have my March hat, and an usher’s armband, and a button, and the program that lists all the speakers. Myrlie Evers was supposed to be the spokesperson for women in the movement, but she couldn’t get to D.C. that day.

At about 9 am, the people started coming, and you could see buses coming from every direction. There were so many of them. I went to the Lincoln Memorial when John was speaking, and I was at the tent when Dr. King spoke. I was a runner, and I was in the right place to see it all. We went from 100,000 to 250,000, and no one had expected that many people to show up. We had SNCC groups who came from Danville and M.S., and Joyce and Dorie, George Greene, and Jim Forman were next to the stage.

At the end of March, I went to get some sleep. It was such a peaceful day, everyone helping everyone. I think the expectations were very high in terms of people turning out; I think we went beyond our own expectations, recognizing the organizational skills and strategy of the movement were successful. It was absolutely a success. We knew we had turned the corner on direct action and had to go to the next level of organizing in the most hostile and violent of places: Mississippi.

Cleve Sellers MOW memories; telephone interview 8/19/2023 by Sharlene Kranz