Different interpretations are inevitable in the writing of history. Study and analysis leads to twists and turns in accounts.
No exception is a watershed date in Orangeburg’s history, “The Orangeburg Massacre,” so named from the title of a book about a tragedy that The Times and Democrat in 1981 designated the major news story of the newspaper’s first 100 years.
There is no disputing the significance of the events of 50 years ago today on Feb. 8, 1968. In a confrontation at the then-South Carolina State College, three students died when shot by S.C. Highway Patrolmen. Others were injured in one of the civil rights era’s violent turning points.
Over decades, however, the accounts of what happened and exactly why on those days in February 1968 changed seemingly every year. During the 30th anniversary year, the focus produced all sorts of rewriting of the best account of what happened, the book by journalists Jack Bass and Jack Nelson titled “The Orangeburg Massacre.”
That brought together 250 residents of Orangeburg — black and white — on Feb. 7, 1999, to make a statement about the future. The 250 signed the statement printed in a full-page newspaper advertisement in The Times and Democrat.
On this 50th anniversary observance of the deaths of Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton, we as a community are reminded of the pledge of two decades ago.
Following is the text of “Orangeburg, let us heal ourselves.”
“Physician, heal thyself,” Jesus commanded to the Israelites in a time of broken covenants and spiritual unrest. Christ offered this proverbial lesson to the spiritually impaired Jews in hopes that they would examine their relationships with God as well as with each other. Bandaging those torn relationships, or healing themselves, was His cure that would lead to redemption.
Today we must extrapolate Christ’s proverbial command to the broken relationships in the Orangeburg community.
The events that took place on the campus of South Carolina State College on Feb. 8, 1968, that led to the deaths of three students and injuries to others are deeply regrettable. More than 30 years later there is no cure; nothing that can be done to erase the fact that Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton were killed while they were in the prime of their lives.
Each year since their deaths, there has been a memorial service in honor of these three young men. This acknowledgement of their deaths is a vital chapter in the civil rights history of Orangeburg, as well as South Carolina and the entire nation.
Today, however, we are concerned with the broken relationships in the Orangeburg community as a result of the misinterpretations of that tragic night. We recognize the right to, as well as the necessity of, a memorial service commemorating the event, but we also feel that it should be kept to the dignity for which it is intended — a solemn observance of that tragic night in 1968. It should not be marred by creating a day of racial hatred in Orangeburg by those of either race who try to rewrite the chronicle of events of that unforgettable incident.
Therefore, as a group of people dedicated to racial harmony in Orangeburg, we ask that the curtain be drawn on the theatrics of this tragedy. History cannot be rewritten, but it can and should be used to move forward and rebuild racial relations. Let us stop recreating, but solemnly recall, the untimely deaths of those three young men. The annual memorial service must continue to be a foundation for better relations among the races, not the root of increased tension in the Orangeburg community.
If we do not use this memorial service as a building block for strengthened relationships, it will be detrimental to our community. Unfortunately, the middle ground of both races reacts to the actions of the extremists of both races. The result is racial divisiveness, which then leads to more negative publicity in the media whose appetite for the sensational may overshadow any real concern for the wellbeing of the community. Let us heed the age-old advice to “heal ourselves” and thereby entice families to make their homes, businesses to locate, students to attend school and couples to retire in our community. Let us show them how far we have come in terms of racial relations since the tragedy of 1968.