Commentary

Remember the Orangeburg Massacre

February 17, 2014 

If you’re a 60-year-old native South Carolinian, you’re unlikely to have a memory of the Orangeburg Massacre. You would have been 14 when it happened on Feb. 8, 1968 – two years before the deaths of four white students at Kent State University in Ohio.

The new 2014 Black History calendar published by South Carolina AT&T for February (national Black History Month), highlights the Orangeburg Massacre. It provides a solid overview of what transpired.

On Feb. 6, 1968 – four years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act – South Carolina State college students attempted to bowl at Orangeburg’s only bowling alley, the All-Star Bowling Lanes. Still segregated, its owner refused them admission, tensions escalated, and violence erupted. It ended that night with nine students and one city policeman hospitalized for injuries. Other students remained for treatment overnight in the college infirmary.

Two nights later, a fire truck was called to douse a bonfire lit by students on a street in front of the campus. Almost 70 state troopers – all of them white, with little training in crowd control – moved in to protect the firemen. As more than 100 students retreated to the campus interior, one tossed a banister rail that struck a trooper in the face. Knocked to the ground, he was taken to hospital. Almost 70 armed lawmen moved onto the campus edge, armed with rifles, pistols, and short-barreled shotguns loaded with deadly buckshot.

Students returned to the front of the campus to watch as the bonfire was extinguished. As they advanced at 10:33 p.m., a trooper fired several rifle shots into the air, apparently intended as warning shots. Nine other officers began firing at advancing students. The sky lit up as students fled or dived for cover.

When the shooting ended 10 second later, three students lay dying, with 28 others wounded. Most were shot in the back or side or even in the soles of their feet. The three fatalities were Samuel Hammond, a freshman football halfback from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Henry Smith, a sophomore from Marion, and Delano Middleton, a 17-year-old whose mother worked at the college.

I was present that night in Orangeburg. As Columbia bureau chief for the Charlotte Observer, I arrived a day and-a-half earlier.

Nine patrolmen, pleading self-defense, were ultimately tried in federal court. All were acquitted. The trial pursued by Department of Justice lawyers, however, brought out the facts. Each patrolman was authorized to fire if he believed his or a fellow officer’s life was in danger. But all existing crowd control manuals – the Army’s, National Guard’s, and FBI’s – directed that no one in such a situation fire a weapon unless a senior officer gives a command.

The book “The Orangeburg Massacre ,which I co-authored with Los Angeles Times writer Jack Nelson, tells the full story. It has remained in print with Mercer University Press for more than 30 years. All royalties go to a S.C. State scholarship fund named for the three students who were killed.

Following the tragedy, Governor Robert E. McNair referred to it as the “Orangeburg incident.” In his final address to the Legislature two years later, however, McNair declared what happened at Orangeburg as “a scar on our state’s conscience.”

What is needed now is a process of reconciliation that can make this scar fade away. There’s a single issue involved in all of this, and that is justice. To achieve it, the state of South Carolina needs its own full inquiry and report to its residents.

The state of Florida provided a precedent for such action 20 years ago. It launched an investigation into a tragedy that occurred 70 years earlier in rural Rosewood, an almost all-black town placed. An explosive racial conflict ended with six blacks killed and dozens of families forced to flee, losing their property. The involvement of the sheriff and other lawmen provided sufficient state action to seek compensation for damages.

Based on a special investigative report in 1994 authorized by the Legislature, the state of Florida appropriated $2.1 million to compensate eight survivors ($150,000 each) and extend other forms of compensation to descendants, such as college scholarships. The state’s special investigator concluded the state had a “moral obligation” based on acts by law enforcement and other state officials. Florida’s act of reconciliation has allowed its scar to fade.

With this historical background, the haunting question our state should address is simply this: Does anyone really believe that if three students had been killed and 28 others wounded by police gunfire on the campus of Clemson, U.S.C., or the College of Charleston, there would never have been a full state investigation and report?

When a major corporation such as AT&T is willing to forthrightly present the facts, hasn’t sufficient time passed for the state of South Carolina to confront this open wound and allow its victims, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to heal, along with the scar on our state’s conscience.

Jack Bass is professor of humanities and social sciences emeritus at the College of Charleston.

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