Welcome to day 12 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
I’m taking a class on 1968, a year I was too young to remember. Major topics have been the Vietnam War, civil rights, protests and demonstrations, the political conventions and elections, big stuff that happened in the U.S. besides those things, and major events that happened in the rest of the world.
One event that we covered in some detail was the Orangeburg Massacre, as it’s called. Have you heard of it? Do you remember it? Were you taught about it?
It wasn’t something anyone told me about when I was growing up. I remember hearing about the police shootings of students at Kent State in some detail, both in school and through TV, newspaper, and magazine coverage of it, years later. But I never knew about the police killings of unarmed students in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Thanks to the class I’m taking, my eyes have been opened to this event, all but buried in history.
An article about the event in Dissent magazine begins, “Have you heard about that time in the late sixties when three student protesters were shot dead by state troopers? No, it wasn’t Kent State, in May 1970, when four white students were killed by the Ohio National Guard. Nor was it Jackson State, eleven days later, when two black students were killed by Mississippi police. This was in Orangeburg, South Carolina, two years earlier, and it was in many respects a watershed moment: it marked the first time in U.S. history that students were killed by police on their own campus.”
The unarmed students were killed, shot by police, on 8 Feb. 1968, three days after a sit-in at the segregated All-Star Bowling Lane near South Carolina State College (later University), an historically black college. The bowling alley’s owner, Harry K. Floyd, thought that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t apply to the bowling alley because it was private but as there was a lunch counter operating there, the students thought it was subject to laws regulating interstate commerce (and thus federal desegregation under the 1964 Act).
On 5 Feb., about 40 students staged a sit-in at the bowling alley lunch counter, asking for the bowling alley to be integrated.
The next night, 6 Feb., the students returned, but the police and some highway patrolmen blocked their entrance. About 15 students who rushed the door were arrested, the protest escalated, a crowd of several hundred formed, and tensions rose, in part due to the arrival of a firetruck and the memory of local students having been sprayed with firehoses in a March 1960 sit-in at the Orangeburg Kress drugstore lunch counter. The students shouted insults and used their fists against police who beat them with truncheons; nine students went to the hospital.
On the following day, the 7th, classes were cancelled. Students issued a list of 12 demands to the city, a third of which involved healthcare justice in town (Orangeburg Regional Hospital was also still segregated), as well as calling for the integration of the bowling alley and an end to police violence; they also requested a permit for a peaceful protest march, but the mayor refused. Later that day, both South Carolina State and Claflin College (another historically black college in Orangeburg, the oldest one in South Carolina) were placed on lockdown.
By Thursday, 8 Feb., South Carolina’s governor, Robert McNair, had called in about 120 armed National Guardsmen, state highway patrolmen, and local policemen, and another 450 troops downtown. Some of the officers, including the patrolmen, carried 870 Remington 12-gauge pump shotguns loaded with buckshot used to kill deer and other large game, as well as carbines (light automatic rifles) and pistols.
As the Charlotte Observer recalled in a 50-year retrospective article earlier this year, “By Thursday night, Orangeburg, with military vehicles and a heavy law enforcement presence, looked like an occupied city. Nerves were on edge that night when a crowd of students faced the highway patrol.”
The students assembled at the front of the SCSC campus, facing the troops enforcing the lockdown. At 10 p..m. on the “brutally” cold night (historical weather reports show that the low was 27F there), they built a bonfire, either to keep warm or to “keep out white assailants who had been driving through the campus and shooting at students,” or both. When the police tried to put out the bonfire, someone in the crowd threw a piece of banister at a highway patrolman, injuring him, and in response a deputy shot his gun into the air, as a warning — but the nine South Carolina Highway Patrol officers and one Orangeburg City policeman (later promoted to Chief of Police) apparently feared they were being fired on and shot into the crowd. In the end, after about 9 seconds of shooting, 30 or so students were hit by fire, almost all of them shot either in the back or buttocks, fleeing, or in the feet, while prone on the ground. (Estimates of the protesters shot range from 27 to 31.)
Three students were killed: Samuel Ephesians Hammond, Jr. (born 30 July 1949, aged 18), a freshman, shot in the back; Henry Ezekial ‘Smitty’ Smith (aged 17 to 19, reports vary), an ROTC student, shot three times; and high school student Delano Herman Middleton (born 8 Dec. 1950, aged 17) whose mother was a campus maid; he often stopped there to see her on his way home from basketball practice. Middleton was shot 7 times, including once in the heart. A woman (in her mid-20s) beaten by police while transporting gunshot victims to the hospital lost her unborn child in a miscarriage soon afterward. (Photo: Middleton, Hammond, and Smith.)
The next day, Governor McNair incorrectly said that the event had occurred off-campus and, with no evidence, he blamed ‘black power advocates’ (soon disproved). Press reports, including the Associated Press report, wrongly stated that there had been a heavy exchange of gunfire between police and protesters — but the police were the only ones shooting.
Though nine patrolmen were indicted by the federal government for using excessive force at a campus protest, all were quickly acquitted.
In fact, the only person convicted of a crime (by an all-white jury) was Cleveland Sellers, an activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who lived in town and had come to visit the campus in the midst of the tension, hoping to talk to the students and keep them from conflict with the police. He served 7 months in state prison, charged with having incited a riot on 6 Feb. He was shot during the 8 Feb. attack. In 1993, about 25 years later, he was pardoned by the governor of South Carolina, after evidence proved him innocent. And 35 years later, in February 2003, Governor Mark Sanford “formally apologized for the actions made by South Carolina highway patrol officers that resulted in what many call the Orangeburg Massacre.” (Sellers went on to earn his master’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and later served as president of Voorhees College in his hometown.)
There has never been an official state investigation into what happened that night in Orangeburg. A SC state house bill introduced in March 2007, seeking to establish a commission to investigate the Orangeburg Massacre and prepare a formal report, failed; of the bill’s 26 sponsors, only one was white.
In December 2007, the FBI announced it wouldn’t reopen the case. An Oct. 1970 article in Time magazine (mostly behind a paywall) details significant flaws in the FBI investigation, and it begins: “After four students at Kent State University were killed and nine were wounded by National Guardsmen last May, the incident stayed on the front pages of newspapers for weeks. Even today, five months later, the aftermath of the confrontation still makes news. But when students at the predominantly black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg clashed with police on Feb. 8, 1968, newsmen covered the event sparsely, inaccurately, or not at all.”
In fact, most accounts of the Orangeburg Massacre say something like “Too often forgotten,” or “Today, few remember.” A retrospective article this year in the Charlotte Observer notes: “Though it was the deadliest single incident of the civil-rights era in the Carolinas, the Orangeburg Massacre remains relatively obscure.”
The Orangeburg Massacre was barely (and inaccurately) reported at the time, and despite a book about it in 1970 and a few 50-year retrospectives this year, it has remained effectively hidden from public consciousness since then. (Wikipedia’s “1968 in the U.S.” page doesn’t mention it in the summary, and it gets the story wrong in multiple respects in the line devoted to it for Feb. 8.) Various explanations for lack of coverage then and since include that it occurred at night, so there weren’t good photos, and that there were other big stories swirling around then that eclipsed it, such as the start of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam at the end of January and the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo by North Korea on 23 Jan. — North Korea still has it; Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated two months later.)
“It got lost in the shuffle because so much was going on in 1968,” said William Hine, who was a first-year history professor at S.C. State that February and was there the night of shootings. “It’s still lost historically.”
Because early stories wrongly blamed the students and “outside agitators,” many felt the police behaved appropriately, and others were confused. One local paper reported that “[a]bout 200 Negros [sic] gathered and began sniping with what sounded like ‘at least one automatic, a shotgun and other small caliber weapons.'”
But the reason that looms large for the story’s inattention, then and now, is that the students shot and killed that night were black, not white. Jim Clyburn, one of the students arrested in the Kress drugstore lunch counter sit-in in 1960 and now a Democratic leader from South Carolina in the U.S. House, “sees a direct line from Orangeburg to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. ‘Orangeburg and Jackson (State) had both suffered similar situations as Kent State,’ he told the Observer. ‘But they were black schools. And believe it or not, the powers that be did not value black lives as they did white lives.’
A (white) photographer on the scene of the massacre, Bill Barley, then 27, said in Feb. 2018 that “‘the story … was kept almost completely silent. … It got kind of smoothed over back then. … I think South Carolina’s reputation was more important than the students’ lives. Our reputation as a “good civil rights state” was important to white leadership.'”
Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968: , 2009, Bestor Cram & Judy Richardson. A 57-minute documentary. Interviews with the participants, both white and black, tell the story of the Orangeburg Massacre, including the ways white South Carolina politicians have dismissed efforts to honor the victims and to provide basic answers to lingering questions. Chapters: Orangeburg: The Community; The Beginnings: A Bowling Alley Demonstration; The Response: Lead-up to the Massacre; The Massacre; Blamed: Black Power & Cleveland Sellers; Questions Remain & FBI Investigation; The Trials: The Officers, Cleveland Sellers; Remembering & The Legacy.
Orangeburg Massacre 1968, on YouTube, 4 min, 20 sec.
Neiman Reports: Documenting the Orangeburg Massacre, Jack Bass, Harvard College, 13 Sept. 2003.
“50 years after 3 students died in SC civil rights protest, survivors still ask ‘Why?,'” Jim Morrill, The Charlotte Observer, 7 Feb. 2018.
Orangeburg Massacre: Last living photographer at scene remembers Feb. 8, 1968, John Mack, The Times & Democrat, 7 Feb. 2018.
Retropolis: ‘Stained with blood’: The 1968 campus massacre of black protesters by South Carolina police, DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post, 8 Feb. 2018.
“Remember the Orangeburg Massacre,” Robert Greene, Dissent, 7 Feb. 2018
“50 Years After The Orangeburg Massacre, Looking For Justice In South Carolina,” Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR, 10 Feb. 2018.
The 1968 Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina, South Carolina Information Highway.
The Orangeburg Massacre, Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.
Special thanks to Gene Lariviere for introducing me to the Orangeburg Massacre.