- On Feb. 8, 1968, law enforcement officers shot and killed 3 Black students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, during a protest against racial segregation in the Southern town.
- Known as “The Orangeburg Massacre,” the shooting became one of the most violent moments during the civil rights movement, but it also remains one of the least known.
- During the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, the governor used ‘law-and-order’ tactics to quell civil unrest, sending in the National Guard in an attempt to keep the peace.
- Similar methods are being used during the 2020 protests against systemic racism and police brutality following the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd as President Trump and others have called for military troops to control protesters.
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On Feb. 8, 1968, law enforcement officers shot and killed three Black students on the then-South Carolina State College campus in Orangeburg.
Known as the “Orangeburg Massacre,” it remains one of the most violent moments of the civil rights movement, according to the History Channel. But it also remains one of the least publicized, and many of the details surrounding the events of that night are still cloudy. It received minimal media attention at the time, in part likely due to the victims being Black and also due to a news cycle dominated by war and political events of the year.
The white officers were later acquitted after citing self-defence – despite a lack of evidence supporting that claim – and the blame was pinned on an “outside agitator,” a seasoned activist and pioneer of the civil rights movement named Cleveland Sellers, who was later exonerated and officially pardoned in 1993.
South Carolina to this day has not launched an official state investigation into the events that unfolded that night.
Here’s what we know about the Orangeburg Massacre.
Before the Orangeburg Massacre on Feb. 8, 1968, a series of protests leading up to that night began on Feb. 5, just three nights prior.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed to put an end to segregation in the South. But as we know, many white Southerners continued to harbour racism toward members of the Black community, discriminating against and persecuting them for decades to come.
Many white-owned establishments refused to comply with the segregation laws, including All-Star Bowling Lanes in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a town of about 14,000 at the time.
The bowling alley’s owner, Harry Floyd, was adamant that because his establishment was privately owned, he was exempt from complying with the segregation laws.
Students from the historically black colleges South Carolina State College – which is now South Carolina State University – and Claflin University decided to protest. A small group, led by an SC State senior named John Stroman, showed up and sat at the lunch counter inside on Feb. 5. The police were called, and the business closed early, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Word of Floyd’s whites-only policy spread across both campuses, drawing more students to the cause. And on Feb. 6, they tried again.
Over 30 students eventually managed to make their way inside the bowling alley, while white patrons harassed them, and stayed there for about 30 minutes until Floyd called the police.
Pete Strom, a staunch, seasoned police chief with the State Law Enforcement Division, eventually showed up and told Stroman to advise his fellow protesters to leave if they did not want to be arrested.
As about 15 were taken into custody, including Stroman, word spread to the campus of what was happening, and 300 to 400 students flocked to the front of the establishment. Some of them brought bricks from local construction sites, according to Sciway, an online database of South Carolina’s history.
The 15 arrested students were released after the South Carolina State’s Dean of Students intervened.
But only under the condition that they return to the bowling alley parking lot and convince the rest of their fellow students to stand down and return to campus.
Eventually, the crowd seemed to settle.
But then the police chief, Roger Poston, arrived at the scene with a firetruck.
The symbol had come to embody the brutality inflicted by law enforcement during the civil rights era – Black students just eight years prior had been brutally hosed during a sit-in demonstration in Orangeburg in 1960.
Some in the crowd of about 300 to 400 students began swinging insults, and the sound of a glass window breaking ricocheted from somewhere, which is when state troopers and police began beating the protesters – male and female – with billy clubs.
One young woman, Emma McCain, recounted her experience of that night in a February 2018 interview with South Carolina ETV. She said she was beaten by two officers.
“I was helpless,” McCain said. “It was like they were trying to teach us a lesson.”
She remembers the feeling of nightsticks striking her across the head, and her ear was split, which needed stitches. One of the women beaten, 27-year-old Louise Kelly Crawley, was pregnant at the time. She suffered a miscarriage a week later. Another male student’s skull was cracked.
McCain said in the 2018 interview that she and the rest of the students weren’t anticipating a confrontation with the police. They were hoping to negotiate and talk about why the white students in town could bowl and they couldn’t.
“We were not prepared for the brute force that we were met with,” McCain said in the 2018 interview.
Students fled the scene, with some breaking windows out of cars and buildings in their fury and frustration with the officers.
The next day, on Feb. 7, classes were cancelled and both SC State and Claflin were placed on lockdown.
Students convened and, along with professors, presented City Hall with a list of grievances they would like addressed in the community. The list included an end to police brutality and an end to segregation and discrimination in doctors’ officers and other public services.
The students and their grievances were met with apathy from officials.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine
The governor at the time was Robert McNair, and he did what 34 states had done the year before to help squash civil unrest.
He resorted to “law and order” politics and called in the National Guard to intimidate students and dissuade them from participating in any further demonstrations.
President Trump has attempted to employ similar methods during the 2020 protests, as New York Magazine reports.
An estimated 570 National Guardsmen, state highway patrolmen, and local law enforcement officers were eventually lining the downtown streets and the South Carolina State campus.
By Feb. 8, about 120 of them were positioned along the edges of the South Carolina State campus.
Febr. 8, 1968, was a blisteringly cold night, reports recall.
More than 100 students congregated on the South Carolina State campus to protest racial segregation, chanting and singing civil rights anthems, including “We Shall Overcome.”
At 10 pm, students had gathered around a bonfire, with some taunting the officers and throwing rocks and other objects at them. Thirty minutes later, firemen approached to extinguish the flames and were accompanied by state troopers for back-up.
According to The Times and Democrat, Orangeburg’s daily newspaper, one of the more than 100 students threw a wooden banister or some other object at one of the troopers, striking him in the face and sending him to the ground bleeding.
One of the officers, as the newspaper reports, fired a series of warning shots into the air. But then other officers began firing as well, shooting off rounds into the dark. The officers would later recall that they thought the students were firing at them.
The shootout took all of 8 seconds. By the time it was over, 28 students were shot and three would later die.
According to multiple reports, many were shot in the back, buttocks, sides, and the soles of their feet as the students took off in the opposite direction of the gunfire. The officers fired buckshot, a type of shotgun pellet predominantly used to hunt wild game.
Survivor Jordan Simmons told journalist Jack Bass in a 2001 interview that he remembers hearing someone laugh right before the gunfire started. He was shot in his upper body, and when he went to the infirmary, he saw others there.
“There was blood all over the place,” Simmons said in the interview. “I mean people were lying around yelling and screaming.” He likened the environment to a combat situation.
Two SC State students were killed: 18-year-old Samuel Hammond Jr. and 19-year-old Henry Smith.
The third victim was a 17-year-old high school senior named Delano Middleton who wasn’t protesting when he was shot seven times and killed by the lawmen. He was on his way home and stopping by the campus, where his mother worked.
The morning after the shooting, Gov. McNair called the shooting “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina” at a press conference in the state capital of Columbia.
But due to a lack of concrete information, he also incorrectly stated that the shooting occurred off-campus and that there was an exchange of gunfire.
Some referred to McNair as “the progressive leader of the New South,” as journalist Frank Beacham writes. He was perceived as more moderate in stark contrast to the rest of his white segregationist political colleagues, who blatantly brandished their overt racist beliefs.
But he was determined to maintain good optics of the state – there hadn’t been any reported violence at civil rights demonstrations held in South Carolina up to that point, and he wanted to keep it that way.
So he pinned the blame squarely on Black Power advocates seeking to use the students and their protests to fulfil their own agendas.
Some officials have used a similar tactic to deflect attention from citizens and shift the blame to radical organisers during the 2020 protests against police brutality following the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, as The New York Times reports.
Cleveland Sellers, a South Carolina native, activist, and Freedom Fighter, ended up being that scapegoat.
Sellers had participated in, but not led, the protest alongside students the night of Feb. 8 and was shot in the armpit. He was arrested at the hospital and dubbed the “outside agitator,” charged with inciting a riot and assault and battery with intent to kill, among other items, with a bail bond set at $US50,000.
Sellers told journalist Frank Beacham in his 2011 book “The Legacy of the Orangeburg Massacre” that he was a sort of police trophy. “The smile is the irony of that picture. I could hardly believe what was happening to me. Even though I knew these people were fully capable of all this, it just didn’t make any sense.”
The only charge officials could pin on him was for the protest outside the bowling alley, which was led by student John Stroman, and Sellers spent seven months behind bars. He was exonerated and officially pardoned in 1993, 25 years after the shooting. He would go on to receive a master’s degree from Harvard University and a Doctorate of Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, among other accomplishments.
All of the white officers involved in the shooting were charged with abuse of power but ultimately acquitted, citing self-defence for their reasoning for firing their weapons, despite a lack of evidence that students were armed.
The Black community was aghast at the killing and how officials handled the matter.
Black residents, including the director of the NAACP chapter at South Carolina State College seen above, began planning a boycott of white-owned businesses in response to the shooting.
Photos taken by an Associated Press photographer show that National Guardsmen remained in town in the days following the shooting.
Protests were organised in response to the police killing, like these students gathered in front of the South Carolina statehouse on March 14 of that year, nearly a month after the shooting.
A federal investigation was launched, which only resulted in the charges against the nine highway patrolmen, who were later acquitted.
Some urged the FBI to reopen the investigation in 2007, but the agency refused according to Sciway.
The deadly shooting has slipped through the cracks in mainstream American history for a number of reasons.
The Orangeburg Massacre was the first deadly shooting conducted by law enforcement upon students on a college campus. It predated the much more heavily publicized Kent State University shooting in Ohio in 1970 when National Guardsmen killed four white students, and the Jackson State University shooting in 1970 when city and state police killed two Black students.
But because South Carolina State was a Black college and the victims were Black, the media likely did not pay it the same attention as it would with the Kent State shooting and the university’s white students two years later. And the Orangeburg Massacre also coincided with the Tet Offensive, a military campaign in the Vietnam War that dominated the news cycle at the time.
The reports that did come out about the shooting were riddled with errors, like an Associated Press report stating that there was “a heavy exchange of gunfire” that night.
But a book called “The Orangeburg Massacre” written by journalists Jack Bass and Jack Nelson was released in 1970 and shed more much-needed light on the shooting.
Gov. McNair’s use of force methods would plague him in his political career.
His handling of the Orangeburg Massacre even likely cost him the role of Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968, as The New York Times reported in the outlet’s 2007 obituary of McNair.
South Carolina to this day has yet to launch an official state investigation into the events surrounding that night, despite state legislators including Sellers’ son Bakari Sellers — who served up until 2014 — urging for one.
However, the shooting has gotten a bit more of the attention that it deserves in recent years.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine
In 2001, South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges apologised.
In 2003, then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Stanford submitted a written apology to the public.
And a documentary called Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre was released in 2008 telling the story of the tragic events of that night.
As for the bowling alley, a federal judge forced All-Star Bowling Lanes to desegregate following the tragic event, and it remained in business until 2007.
The bowling alley is now listed on the National Register. South Carolina State University students took part in a re-enactment of the 1968 protest in front of the establishment on Feb. 7, 2008.
Source: South Carolina Picture Project
A monument honouring the three men who were killed on Feb. 8, 1968, was erected on the South Carolina State campus a year later in 1969.
Ora Sue Smith Hughes, sister to Henry Smith – one of the three students shot and killed on Feb. 8, 1968 – told South Carolina ETV in a February 2018 interview that her brother was not a violent person, but he did not stand for inequity. He was deeply invested in the civil rights cause and had previously staged a sit-in at a lunch counter in 1966.
“I just feel like he was a very courageous person, and during the time when he was out there along with other students and any other young people that participated in the civil rights movement, that was a big risk for them, and they were very courageous for even going out to try to make a difference,” she said.
She said her brother initially wanted to go into the Air Force, a career path that their mother considered dangerous during the Vietnam Wartime period. She believed her son would be safer on a college campus.
“Nobody ever expected that this incident would happen like it happened, that officers would just randomly fire on students, even when students were running,” Smith Hughes said in the interview.
Germaine Middleton, a niece to Delano Middleton, told The Times and Democrat in February that she never met her uncle, but that she will always honour his legacy.
In a 2010 interview with NPR, Zenobbie Clark and Diana Carter – sisters to Samuel Hammond – said they still think about what might have been. And Hammond may have been the big brother, but Carter said he was their mother’s baby.
“That was her heart,” she said.
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