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Orangeburg Massacre: Last living photographer at scene remembers Feb. 8, 1968
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Orangeburg Massacre: Last living photographer at scene remembers Feb. 8, 1968

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The history of Orangeburg forever changed on the night of Thursday, Feb. 8, 1968.

After several days of protests, rising tensions and a worried community, South Carolina Highway Patrol troopers fired rounds from the entrance of the South Carolina State University campus into a crowd of unsuspecting student protesters. Three young men were killed and 28 other people were injured.

The incident is known today as the Orangeburg Massacre.

A photographer on the scene ducked for cover just a few feet behind the police line as shots rang out that night on the campus. Bill Barley was in Orangeburg working as a consultant for the S.C. Governor’s Office and as photo stringer for United Press International. He was 27 at the time.

“We were employed as civilian or private contractors,” Barley said. “Me and my business partner at that time, we’d get a weekly worksheet of what the governor needed done.”

That week, S.C. Gov. Robert McNair sent the pair to Orangeburg following protests to be independent eyes on the ground with no political slant.

Barley said his instructions were, “Take pictures of what’s going on down there and be prepared to give me a report.”

That Monday, Feb. 5, 1968, S.C. State senior John Stroman led a small group of students to the “white-only” bowling alley downtown. This led to the police ordering the business closed, but no students were arrested.

The following night, Stroman returned with another group, prepared to be arrested. After one man in the group cursed at an officer, he was arrested and the news quickly spread back to the campus.

Soon a crowd gathered outside the bowling alley, including Cleveland Sellers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Approximately 300 students were gathered when a glass window near the bowling alley was shattered. Officers began beating students, both men and women, with their wooden batons.

Bloody, beaten and bruised, the students dispersed from the parking lot and headed back to the campus, breaking windows of businesses along the way.

“There was a great fear among the town that everyone was going to run amok and burn the town down,” Barley said.

This led to the National Guard being brought in, along with the Highway Patrol.

“The Highway Patrol was sent down, too, because that was the only police force available to the governor that he had any control of,” Barley said.

Along with the Highway Patrol, the governor also had control of the State Law Enforcement Division, Barley said. But SLED at the time was comprised of only about 36 people.

Thursday, Feb. 8, 1968

Barley arrived in Orangeburg around 4 p.m. Thursday.

“There had been some student demonstrations on campus,” Barley said. “The town was safe; it was not going to be looted and burned.”

He said merchants were able to open their businesses.

As the evening went on, Barley was on the edge of the campus, and the Highway Patrol was preventing anyone from getting onto or off of the campus.

“The campus was being treated as a big holding pen for all of the students,” he said.

Then, at about 6:30 or so, the first sign of something more to come caught the attention of those near the campus.

Barley said, “I heard a pop, pop, pop.”

He believes it was gunfire from a small-caliber pistol.

“It didn’t have the crack of a .38 or a .357 magnum,” Barley said. “That happened just about dusk and then nothing else happened.”

The source of the shots has never been confirmed.

At approximately 9:30 p.m., students began pulling debris and wood off an abandoned house that was being torn down at the edge of the campus. They piled the material in the small side road (Watson Street) that cuts from Russell Street and exits onto Magnolia right along the front entrance of the campus. Barley said the students lit a bonfire.

“Everybody got anxious and aggravated,” he said. “They called the Orangeburg Fire Department in.”

When the firefighters came in to put out the fire, there was a great fear that students were going to attack the fire truck, Barley said.

“Never happened,” he said.

At the time, the area between Lowman Hall on the campus and out toward Magnolia was full of trees and bushes.

“It was not the lawn that it is today,” Barley said. “And there were no streetlights. ... In that immediate area right around there, it’s dark."

Someone had pulled a banister from the abandoned house and "out of the darkness out there on the campus, they had tossed it.” he said.

“It landed right on the bridge of the nose of a Highway Patrolman and cold-cocked him out,” Barley said.

An ambulance was called to pick up the patrolman, but before it arrived, they put him into the back of a police car and raced off to the hospital.

“It is a fact of operational police work that any time any one of them is injured or gets in a tight situation, the d*mn bunch of them get right hinky, as the phrase may be,” Barley said. “Everybody on the police line got real tense at that point.”

“The tension just went zzt!” Barley said, throwing his arms into the air.

He recalled around 20-something patrolman standing in a line around from the entrance road to the campus up along a 4-foot-high berm above the sidewalk.

Barley said he was standing beneath the patrolmen talking with Ellis McDougall, director of the South Carolina Prison System. McDougall had brought in a prison bus in case there were mass arrests.

About five minutes after the officer was hit in the face and sent off to the hospital, the tensions got too high, Barley said.

He pointed to the right where the police line would have been, saying, “Somebody fired up here.”

“(McDougall) and I were just talking, making small talk about nothing and then we heard a pop, pop again,” Barley said. “I remember there was a single shot, and then a ragged bam bam and then all of a sudden, everybody fired at once.”

“He (McDougall) pushed me in the back and said, ‘Get down! They’re shooting at us!’” Barley said. “We kneeled down on that little berm, right on the sidewalk behind the line of highway patrolmen.”

“I recall hearing some officer scream, ‘Cease fire! Cease fire! I never ordered that!’” Barley said. “And there was never another shot fired, but then you heard the cries of all the wounded.”

The shooting lasted 8 to 15 seconds, he said.

“The cacophony of all these people that were wounded up there on the campus, the screams, the moaning,” he said. “Nobody ever reported that.”

It was pandemonium after the shooting, Barley said.

“We couldn’t get past the police line to get up where the wounded were," Barley said. "They wouldn’t let us pass."

Though he was mere feet away from gunfire, Barley said he had no lasting effects from the incident.

“I saw dead people on the sidewalk, wounded people staggering around,” he said. “I remember the cries of the wounded as a poignant memory.”

“At the time, I was functioning as a reporter,” Barley said. “My only thought was to get my pictures, get the heck out and get them on the wire.

“I guess I felt I went into got-to-get-the-job-done mode."

When he walked farther down the sidewalk near where the bonfire had been, he saw the blood and the lifeless bodies of two of the three young men killed in the shooting by patrolmen, Barley said.

“They had drug out two of the kids that were apparently dead, and they were left on the sidewalk there bleeding out,” he said.

These two people would later be identified as Henry Smith and Delano Middleton. Smith was an ROTC student and native of Marion. He was shot three times, including in his neck. Middleton was a high school student at Wilkinson and was not involved in the protests. His mother worked as a maid on campus, and he had stopped there on his way home. In all, Middleton was shot seven times, once in the heart.

“They found another one that was wounded,” Barley said.

The ambulance that had been called earlier for the patrolman was now being used for this student, he said. A stretcher was being pulled out to transfer the bleeding student, who later died at the hospital, Barley said.

That student was Samuel Hammond, a freshman from Barnwell who was studying to be a teacher. Hammond was shot in the back and died at Orangeburg's segregated hospital.

Barley said he didn’t linger long after that because he had to get back to Columbia to have his pictures developed.

The next morning, he had to give a report to the governor.

Feb. 9, 1968, and after

“The governor was just totally upset with it. That this had happened on his watch,” Barley said. “He did not want South Carolina to go the way of Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, knocking heads over integration.”

He added, “There were frequent demonstrations around the state for various civil rights reasons, but most of them were organized by the NAACP and there were a select group of people doing a pre-planned ‘This is what we’re going to demonstrate about,’ and SLED had knowledge of them so that they could be there and make sure that nothing bad went wrong.

"This was the first time that you had had a demonstration that had a lot of people involved that weren’t part of the planned demonstration.”

The prior demonstrations had involved less than 50 people as opposed to the hundreds at S.C. State that week.

Barley said that at the time, he had no idea of how key what happened on Feb. 8 would come to be remembered.

“It grew as time went on,” he said. “The political implications of it all grew as the weeks went on, and finally, a couple weeks later, we had a demonstration up in Columbia.”

South Carolina State students came up and marched around the Statehouse and even spoke with Gov. McNair, he said.

“I think the governor fell into that mode that a lot of other ... leaders did then of looking for a scapegoat. Hence, Cleveland Sellers got railroaded into that position,” Barley said. “That’s my opinion. You’ve got to have somebody to blame, and Cleveland got the short straw.”

In all, nine officers were held responsible for the shootings and were brought to trial on charges of excessive force at a campus protest. All nine were acquitted of the charges.

Sellers, a SNCC representative, was the only person charged. He was sent to prison as a result of the incident. He was later pardoned.

“Granted, he was a civil rights activist at the time, but he wasn’t out there as a firebrand saying, ‘Follow me!’ or ‘Run into the gunfire with me!’” Barley said. “He was just one of the guys on the campus at that point.”

“I also feel that everybody wants to blame the law enforcement and Highway Patrol,” he said. “They had had very little training in how to deal with civil disobedience.”

Barley said the FBI had a short course that some of the leaders went to, but it didn't involve much training other than a couple of days’ worth of seminars.

“There’s a fatigue factor in there as well,” he said. “They’d been on duty since about 8 that morning.”

Barley said the state troopers and other other law enforcement officers had been on the line or under stress all day long and the (trooper's) bloody nose incident “just raised their stress level.”

“Their fatigue was already evident and the stress goes on top of the fatigue and then they’re using what we would say today, in retrospect, were inappropriate weapons,” he said.

The weapons used by the patrolmen were shotguns with buckshot, which was too heavy a load for the situation, Barley said.

“In retrospect, going to a lighter load like birdshot ... it just stings and sticks onto your skin. You can pick it out with a pair of tweezers, won’t even go through a leather jacket ... It would have been better to go to a lighter load,” he said.

He said he gets asked why law enforcement didn’t use rubber bullets, but those were not invented until about 10 years later.

As the last living photographer from the scene that night, he said it is important that the story be told.

“We can argue the fine details of who was standing where at what minute and wear that argument out, but the fact of the matter is that 28 kids got shot, three died in the support of the cause of civil rights ..., ” he said. “I think it was a perfect storm of small errors that just added up to this unfortunate killing.”

In addition, Barley believes no one in law enforcement had the idea of “Let’s kill a few of them and the rest of them will go home and leave us alone.”

“I’ve heard that kind of thing,” he said. “Back there in that era of civil rights, that was a common thought among law enforcement.”

He believes in Orangeburg that night, killing was not the intention of the law enforcement officers.

The story, however, was kept almost completely silent, Barley said.

“It got kind of smoothed over back then,” he said. “It was like a thunderstorm that rose and fell.”

“I think South Carolina’s reputation was more important than the students’ lives. Our reputation as a ‘good civil rights state’ was important to white leadership," he said.

“The aftermath of that was that the governor was determined that this should not happen again,” Barley said. “He sent out word through his attorney general, Yancey McLeod, to all the law enforcement organizations in the state, county sheriffs, city police ... that the state would be prepared to prosecute law enforcement officers who shot at a civil rights demonstration unless they could prove it was self-defense.”

Barley said segregation, after a while, “died slowly in this state, but it died politely, you might say.”

“South Carolina was more polite to their people than Alabama and Mississippi,” he said. “It was a mess back then.”

NOTE: Orangeburg civil rights photographer Cecil Williams has four books that include many images from before and after, and on Feb. 8, 1968. Williams was not at the scene during the shootings on Feb. 8, having recounted often how he was among those prevented from getting on campus that day and night.

Contact the writer: jmack@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5516.

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Government Reporter

John Mack is a 2016 graduate of Claflin University. He is an Orangeburg native.

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