Do you know what happened in Orangeburg, SC? It was host to one of the most violent episodes of the Civil Rights movement, yet it remains one of the least recognized.
In 1968 students from South Carolina State and Claflin University were protesting the illegal segregation of a local bowling alley. Police opened fire on around 150 unarmed students, killing three and injuring 28, all of whom were shot in the back with buckshot while retreating. No one was held accountable for the deaths of three young students.
And still today, in light of recent events where the National Guard has been mobilized against young protestors, many people bring up the Kent State shootings of 1970, but not Orangeburg. Why?
The legality of segregation was put to an end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but especially across the South many places, like the All-Star Bowling Lane, didn’t think they had to comply. For years the local community, including members of local black leadership and white business owners, fought to desegregate the bowling alley, to no avail. Appeals were made to the U.S. Justice department in 1967 who would not intervene.
Orangeburg, SC is a small city with a population of around 10,000. The majority of the population is African-American, and the town is home to South Carolina State University, the largest black university in the state, as well as Claflin University, a private historically black university.
On February 5th, John Stroman, a senior at South Carolina State University, led approximately 40 students to that bowling alley. They were told to leave, the police were called, and they left. They returned the next night and were met by police and a barricaded door. Some students eventually gained entry, and were arrested. In the parking lot more students showed up, three to four hundred, as well as 50 to a 100 police, who threatened to open a fire hose on the students. Students armed themselves with bricks from a nearby construction site, and tensions rose quickly. The police responded with broadscale beatings, and reports showed even female students were held down and beaten with billie clubs. Retreating students smashed the windows of local white-owned businesses on their way back to campus.
On February 7th classes were cancelled, and the students organized and brought a list of 12 grievances to City Hall. A third of the list focused on injustices within the local medical community – the local hospital was still segregated and students and the majority of the community did not have equal access to care.
On February 8th, 120 armed National Guardsmen, along with state highway patrol and local police officers gathered at the gates of South Carolina State. An additional 450 armed troops were stationed downtown.
Students gathered, holding hands and singing. That early February night was freezing cold, and they lit a bonfire around 10 o’clock. Firemen moved in, backed by 70 officers, to douse the flames, and the students began to retreat. But then, someone threw a piece of wood, hitting a highway trooper David Shealy in the face. He was knocked out and taken away by other officers for treatment. Then, the growing tensions gave way and nerves broke, someone fired a shot in the air, and nine officers opened fire. In the next fifteen seconds, 31 students were shot, mostly in the back, sides and soles of the feet as they fled. Three of the students died. Delano Herman Middleton, 17 years old, was a local high school student whose mother worked at the school; he was shot seven times. Henry Smith was 19 years old, an ROTC student; he was shot three times. Samuel Hammond was 18 years old and studying to be a teacher; he was shot in the back and died on the floor at the segregated hospital.
Twenty-eight other students were injured by the officers.
The Aftermath of Orangeburg:
Every law enforcement officer was acquitted of charges of excessive force, even though they had opened fire on unarmed students. They argued that they were fired on first, and that was the story portrayed by the media, although there was never been any evidence to prove that. In later years the state of South Carolina has apologized but not made any real moves to recognize or hold people accountable for these murders – stating that bringing up old wrongs doesn’t promote any healing.
The only person charged after the massacre was activist Cleveland Sellers, a 24 four year old black man, arrested and sentenced to a year in prison on riot charges. Sellers had also been shot, unarmed, during the attack. After his release from prison he went on to earn a Master’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.d from UNC Greensboro and he served as the president of Vorhees College for eight years. In 1993 he received a pardon, recognized as the unfortunate scapegoat used by Governor McNair to rewrite the media portrayal of the event as the fault of black agitators, or ‘outside agitators,’ although Sellers was born and raised in South Carolina .
In the recent days of turmoil in our nation I’ve heard people mention Kent State University and the killing of protestors there. The Kent State Shootings happened in 1970, and four white students were killed. That incident is a well-documented part of our national history. The fact that Orangeburg doesn’t come up when referencing student protests, police violence, and racial injustice also speaks to why we as a national are having a hard time moving forward.
Decades of deliberate denial hold back our entire nation from healing and moving forward.
This memory and lack of justice has not left our national landscape or been reconciled. Even now it is hard to find information, and there’s no big monument to those that lost the fight for justice and equality in America. These are the things that should get big monuments. right? The fight for freedom, our defense of our values.
Let’s be brave, look at injustice boldly for what it is, and know we can do better. Let’s say their names – Delano Middle, Samuel Hammond, Jr, Henry Smith – and know that these students, so frustrated after coming out of the hopefulness of Civil Rights to be met with the belittling injustice of locked doors simply because of their skin color, did not die forgotten to history because of shame. Let’s erect memorials and monuments to their bravery, and the belief in the promise that our country holds – that only we can make happen.
Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968. A documentary made in 2008, directed and produced by Bestor Cram and Judy Richardson.