How a College Protest Turned Deadly
Timeline of Events:
On February 5, 1968, a small group of students staged a sit in at a local bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina . Orangeburg was a politically active city with a history of protest, and Martin Luther King had visited the town to speak on occasion . The conflict began when Harry Floyd, a white man who owned All-Star Bowling Lanes, refused entry to African Americans despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race. Students from South Carolina State College, a predominately Black institution at the time, sat calmly at the lunch counter until the police were called and the business closed early .
The following day, the students returned. This time, 15 students were arrested . Hearing of the arrests, a large crowd of students from South Carolina State and nearby Claflin College gathered in a nearby parking lot . When they were told the arrested students would be released, the crowd began to calm, but shortly after, a fire truck arrived. The fire truck sparked chaos as the protesters feared that fire hoses would be used against them. Panicking, many of the students were pushed against glass doors, breaking them. In response, law enforcement officers waded through the crowd, beating some students violently with wooden batons . The crowd dispersed.
The next morning, Orangeburg mayor E.O. Pendarvis attempted to address the situation by meeting with the students. He agreed to share some of their requests, which included eliminating discrimination in public spaces and creating a biracial human relations committee, with the city council. However, South Carolina Governor Robert McNair had already called in the National Guard, further exacerbating tensions .
On the evening of February 8th, 1968, a crowd of 200 to 300 students gathered on South Carolina State’s campus, confronted by law enforcement. Some shouted “Black power” while many began to sing “We Shall Overcome” . Later that night, some students lit a bonfire to keep warm, and the patrol officers called in a fire truck, increasing tensions. Around 10:30 p.m. patrolman David Shealy was injured by a thrown object . Minutes later, a fellow officer responded by firing a shot into the air to “calm the crowd” . Nine state highway patrolmen, disoriented or thinking that they were being fired upon, opened fire into the crowd of students . Chaos ensued as students ran and screams rang out. 28 were injured and three were left dead – Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton. Samuel and Henry were South Carolina State students while Delano was a high school student. All three were 18 years old .
Upon examination, it was discovered that the officers had used buckshot, a higher caliber ammunition than the standard protocol birdshot used for riot dispersal . Among the 28 injured, all but two had been shot in the back, sides, or soles of their feet – they had been shot as they fled. There was no evidence that any of the students had firearms [1;2].
The massacre received some national media attention that was short lived, and many newspapers contained significant errors . For example, the Associated Press claimed that there was a “heavy exchange of gunfire” despite the fact that the students did not fire a single shot . Situated right after the Tet Offensive and weeks before MLK’s assassination, the Orangeburg massacre was quickly forgotten in the stream of media, though African American communities remembered it much more vividly and the shooting sparked several marches and vigils at the University of Chicago and several South Carolina Schools .
The nine officers responsible for the shooting were brought to trial for use of excessive force at the campus protest, but all were acquitted . The only conviction resulting from the Orangeburg massacre was that of Cleveland Sellers, a representative for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was accused of “inciting the riot” and spent seven months in prison before being pardoned 25 years later. To this day, the Orangeburg Massacre remains the bloodiest Civil Rights event in South Carolina history .
Significance and Memory:
Fifty years after the massacre, on February 8th, 2018, the survivors commemorated the event on South Carolina State University grounds. Today, there is a memorial on the site dedicated to Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton, where slabs of rock emblematic of graves stand and an educational sign with their photos. Long after the fact, several documentaries and books have been published on the Orangeburg Massacre. However, the Orangeburg Massacre has been largely left out of the modern dialogue, and today, the survivors still fight for recognition of the crimes perpetrated against them. Thomas Kennerly, a senior present at the protest, has lingering questions about the events of February 8th, 1968: “We still ask ourselves ‘Why?’ It was said we had weapons. We had no weapons. We had nothing to defend ourselves” .
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Orangeburg Massacre is situated within a deep history of violence against African Americans. Jack Shuler, a professor at Denison university, says, “It was part of the longer story, which goes back to the founding of the community” . While it was largely forgotten during the tumultuous year of 1968 and later overshadowed in American memory by the Kent State shooting, where four white students were killed during an anti-Vietnam protest, two years later , forgetting the Orangeburg Massacre has significant social repercussions. Jim Clyburn, a student arrested for sitting in, says “Orangeburg and Jackson (State) had both suffered similar situations as Kent State, but they were black schools. And believe it or not, the powers did not value black lives as they did white lives” . The Orangeburg Massacre is not an isolated event – it is one piece of the timeline of violence against Blacks in America, and one that unfortunately is not often included in history lessons.
In 1969, the deaths of three Black students received limited media coverage. Today, such an occurrence would incite a massive uprising – and rightfully so. Only more recently has the issue of police brutality been covered extensively by the media, in large part due to the Black Lives Matter movement. Current media coverage better recognizes that the systemic racism that caused the Orangeburg Massacre is still very present today, 50 years later. The fact that documentaries of the Orangeburg Massacre are being made and that some national media sources are actually covering stories of violence against African Americans, such as the murders of Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, and many more, aids in more widespread recognition of the disparities in the use of force against African Americans versus whites. The difference in media coverage of the Orangeburg Massacre 50 years ago compared events of today shows the ways in which society has changed, as more stories of violence against Blacks are actually being covered in the news, but the fact that such events still take place indicates that there is still also much that needs to be changed in American society.
In this way, the memory of Orangeburg is usable. Remembering the events of February 8th, 1968, and recirculating the story ensures that the Black narrative in America is not forgotten. Speaking on historical amnesia, Reid Toth, a professor at University of South Carolina Upstate, says of the media coverage of the Orangeburg Massacre: “That is part of the overall benign neglect of failing to address events, whether they’re positive or negative, that impact the black community” . Drawing the attention of the public in a way that wasn’t done after the Orangeburg Massacre may finally help bring about the justice that the victims of the Orangeburg Massacre are still waiting on. In remembering the Orangeburg Massacre, Cecil Williams, South Carolina State’s school photographer in 1968, says he keeps a photo of the shells left behind after the shooting: “I keep them as a reminder than freedom isn’t free. You have to fight for it” . Remembering what happened in the Orangeburg Massacre, acknowledging its place in history, and recognizing the systemic racism that caused it is crucial because only with that knowledge that we can take steps a nation to prevent tragedies like the Orangeburg Massacre from happening again.
- Boissoneault, Lorraine. “In 1968, Three Students Were Killed by Police. Today, Few Remember the Orangeburg Massacre.”com, Smithsonian Institution, 7 Feb. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/1968-three-students-were-killed-police-today-few-remember-orangeburg-massacre-180968092/.
- Manos, Nick. “Orangeburg Massacre (1968).”The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, www.blackpast.org/aah/orangeburg-massacre-1968.
- Morrill, Jim. “50 Years after 3 Students Died in SC Civil Rights Protest, Survivors Still Ask ‘Why?’.”Charlotteobserver, Charlotte Observer, www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article198943934.html#storylink=cpy.
- The State. “Shocking 50-Year-Old Photos from SC’s Bloodiest Civil Rights Protest.”Thestate, The State, www.thestate.com/news/state/article198854584.html#storylink=cpy.
- Balaban, Samantha, et al. “50 Years After The Orangeburg Massacre, Looking For Justice In South Carolina.”NPR, NPR, 10 Feb. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/02/10/584757736/50-years-since-the-orangeburg-massacre.
- “Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968.”Zinn Education Project, zinnedproject.org/materials/scarred-justice-the-orangeburg-massacre-1968/.
- Parker, Adam, et al. “Orangeburg Massacre Survivors Fight for Remembrance of Bloodiest Civil Rights Event in S.C. History.”Post and Courier, 8 Feb. 2018, www.postandcourier.com/news/orangeburg-massacre-survivors-fight-for-remembrance-of-bloodiest-civil-rights/article_66cd9b1e-0604-11e8-a307-036240bdda75.html.
- “Orangeburg Massacre .” US Civil Rights Trail, civilrightstrail.com/attraction/orangeburg-massacre/.