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The Orangeburg Massacre at 50: Historian tells story of fateful days, nights in February 1968

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One-half century ago on the night of Feb. 8, 1968, South Carolina Highway Patrolmen fired their weapons into a crowd of black students protesting on the front of the campus of South Carolina State College. Three students were killed and at least 28 were injured. Virtually all of the young men were hit in the back by shotgun pellets and bullets. The shootings were the culmination of lengthy protests against the vestiges of segregation and the persistence of racial discrimination in Orangeburg, especially the “white only” policy of the All-Star Bowling Lanes.

This tragedy that became known locally and across South Carolina as the Orangeburg Massacre received little national attention at the time. Coming two weeks after the North Korean government captured the U. S. Navy vessel The Pueblo and its crew, and only three days after the Tet offensive began in Vietnam, the Massacre was largely ignored by print and electronic media. Nor did subsequent investigations and trials arouse more than regional interest.

The traumatic events of 1968 — President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to be a candidate, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy’s murder, the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s insurgent and ill-tempered candidacy, and Richard Nixon’s political resurrection in the November election — largely relegated the events in Orangeburg to obscurity. Only publication of “The Orangeburg Massacre” by Jack Nelson and Jack Bass helped to keep the story alive. But FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover managed, with some success, to suppress circulation of the book because he believed it was too critical of the Bureau.

In the past five decades, historians have — with only a few exceptions — ignored Orangeburg while rarely failing to devote attention to the student uprisings at Berkeley and Columbia University and the killings in 1970 at Kent State and Jackson State. Nor is the Massacre included among the many impressive exhibits at the new Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Stanley Nelson’s current documentary on historically black colleges and universities, “Tell Them We are Rising,” barely mentions Orangeburg while focusing on Jackson State in 1970.

The events in Orangeburg did not fit neatly into the anti-war protests of the late 1960s nor do they find a place in the bloody confrontations over civil rights that occurred in Alabama and Mississippi earlier in the decade. But those events do fit into the tradition of student activism on the campuses of South Carolina State and Claflin, and in the Orangeburg community.

The years before

A dozen years before the Massacre, students at S. C. State went on strike, refusing to attend classes, in protest against both the actions of the White Citizens Council in Orangeburg and the authoritarian policies of the college president, Benner C. Turner. Fourteen students were suspended in 1956 and Student Government Association President Fred Henderson Moore was summarily expelled. In February 1960, just days after the sit-ins began at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, South Carolina State and Claflin students launched their own sit-in at the local Kress lunch counter on the town square.

On March 15, 1960, nearly 1,000 students peacefully marched to challenge segregation in Orangeburg, only to be met by law enforcement officers and fire department hoses. Nearly 400 were arrested — among them James Clyburn and Willie Jeffries - -and held behind chain-link fences at the infamous Pink Palace on St. John Street. Non-violent protests and demonstrations continued month after month in the early 1960s. In 1967 S.C. State students went on strike in “the Cause,” staying out of class in opposition to the autocratic policies of longtime President Turner. Turner subsequently retired. Therefore the events of February 1968 can be meaningfully comprehended only as a part of the larger and longer tradition of student activism on the Claflin and South Carolina State campuses.

John Stroman was a senior chemistry major at S.C. State from Savannah, Georgia, and he liked to bowl. Stroman and James P. Davis, a 26-year-old Air Force veteran and freshman, were denied admittance to the All Star Bowling Lanes on Russell Street in the A&P shopping center in the fall of 1967. The following semester, a determined Stroman sought student support in an effort to open the establishment to black patrons, but most students showed little interest in Stroman’s cause. The newly formed Black Awareness Coordinating Committee (BACC) insisted there were more important issues confronting black people than bowling.

In late January 1968 Stroman persuaded fellow student John Bloecher to go bowling alone. Bloecher had no difficulty. He was white. But when Stroman and several black students arrived a bit later and attempted to join Bloecher, the owner of the All Star Lanes, Harry Floyd, quickly escorted all of them from the premises. Undeterred, Stroman led a small group of about 30 students back on Monday, Feb. 5, and Floyd ordered them to leave. Orangeburg Police Chief Roger Poston declined to make any arrests. The students departed and Poston ordered the All Star Lanes closed — much to the disgust of Floyd. At the time there was some legal uncertainty and confusion as to whether a bowling alley was covered under the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As the situation escalated, additional Highway Patrolmen as well as SLED Chief J.P. Strom arrived in Orangeburg. Stroman and another group of students returned to the bowling alley Tuesday night, and 15 of them agreed to be arrested for trespassing. Then a young man cursed a police officer and he was arrested. Word of the arrests quickly spread to the campuses and more students rushed to the scene. S.C. State Dean of Students Oscar “Pete” Butler managed to diffuse the tense situation by negotiating a release of the arrested young people.

Cleveland Sellers was among those who had arrived and joined the growing crowd outside of the bowling alley. Born and raised in nearby Denmark, Sellers was a SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) leader and a veteran of the civil rights struggles in Mississippi and Alabama. He was regarded by many people in Orangeburg as a dangerous black power advocate.

With perhaps 300 or more students milling around the parking lot, a fire truck arrived at the request of Chief Poston. Upset students lit matches and lighters, “Where’s the fire?” they shouted. Police moved forward. There was pushing and shoving. Someone sprayed a caustic liquid into the face of Highway Patrolman John S. Timmerman, permanently damaging his eyesight. A plate-glass window shattered near the bowling alley entrance. Another student was arrested. Law enforcement officers, many armed with heavy wooden batons, waded into the angry crowd and began to beat students including young women.

Infuriated students, some of them bloody, retreated to the campuses, breaking windows of businesses along Russell Street, including Sutcliffe Furniture, Piggly Wiggly, Acacia Flower Shop and East End Motors. There was no looting, but several thousand dollars in damages occurred.

Wednesday morning Mayor E.O. Pendarvis and City Administrator Robert Stevenson appeared on campus and were greeted by an angry and hostile audience at White Hall Auditorium. The meeting was held to diffuse the growing crisis, but it only made matters worse. S.C. State interim President M. Maceo Nance Jr. cautioned the students against resorting to violence and the destruction of property, but he reminded city leaders that students, including women, had been beaten the previous night.

More Highway Patrolmen arrived in Orangeburg that Wednesday, and Gov. Robert McNair mobilized and deployed 250 troops of the 1052nd Transportation Battalion of the National Guard. Like the Highway Patrol, all of the National Guard troops — except one — were white men. Orangeburg took on the appearance of an occupied city. McNair was convinced that black nationalist Cleveland Sellers was stirring up the ordinarily quiescent S.C. State and Claflin students. Many white people feared that Orangeburg would fall prey to the violence and fires that had already devastated Watts, Newark and Detroit. Communication between black and white leaders was non-existent as the crisis intensified. City officials and state leaders offered little meaningful information or leadership. Bizarre stories and rumors flourished in the absence of concrete knowledge.

Students gathered that evening on the front of the S.C. State campus and began pelting passing vehicles on Route 601 with rocks and bottles, prompting the Highway Patrol to close the thoroughfare. In the meantime, a white homeowner living near the Claflin campus fired birdshot at a group of passing students, slightly wounding them. Somehow two white men, William Carson and Carroll Carson, evaded the Highway Patrol roadblock and drove on to the S.C. State campus later that evening firing a weapon. They were forced to make a U-turn and fled only to have their tires shot out by the campus chief of security, Brantley Evans. They were arrested.

Feb. 8, 1968

Thursday, Feb. 8, was a calm day as an eerie atmosphere prevailed among S.C. State students and faculty. President Nance repeated warnings to students to remain on the campus. (Claflin President H.V. Manning was out of town). Perhaps 100 to 200 students gathered on the front of the South Carolina State campus again that evening. They ignited a bonfire on Watson Street in the chilly night air. The fire department arrived to douse the flames. Highway Patrolmen moved forward to protect the firemen. The young men in the crowd retreated and then began moving forward again, hurling vile language and throwing sticks, bottles, boards and rocks toward the 66 Highway Patrolmen aligned along the embankment and near a vacant house adjacent to the campus. With unloaded weapons, National Guard troops remained along Boulevard Street on the other side of Route 601 and the Southern Railroad tracks.

Suddenly a Highway Patrolmen appeared to have been shot. Officer David Shealy crumpled to the ground with blood gushing from his forehead. He had not been shot, but had been hit with a heavy wooden bannister taken from the nearby unoccupied house. Shealy was rushed to the hospital.

At least 10 minutes elapsed. Then one of the patrolmen apparently fired a warning shot. All hell broke loose as many but not all of the Highway Patrolmen began firing their shotguns and side arms into the crowd of students. They continued firing for eight to 10 seconds. Panicked students turned to flee. Most of them were shot in the back and side with double-ought buckshot. There had been no verbal warning, no order to disperse, and no tear gas.

Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith died within hours after the shooting. At least 28 others had been wounded, including Cleveland Sellers. The young black man with the huge Afro was soon apprehended, treated for his injury, charged with multiple offenses and sent to Columbia, where he was incarcerated in the Central Correctional Institution.

The Associated Press initially and incorrectly reported that a “heavy exchange of gunfire” had occurred between students and Highway Patrolmen. The subsequent FBI investigation never presented any evidence that students had or used firearms.

The aftermath

The next day Gov. McNair characterized the shooting as the “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina.” But he swiftly added to the wildly inaccurate accounts that circulated following the Massacre, incorrectly telling the media there had been an “extended period of sniper fire from the campus,” that the shooting had happened off the campus and that students had broken into the ROTC armory to secure firearms prior to the shooting. The governor remained convinced that Cleveland Sellers -- by provoking and agitating the students -- was primarily responsible for the bloodshed.

Both campuses were closed for two weeks, and dazed students went home. When they returned, students were solemn, angry and bitter at what they regarded as the tragic injustice that had already come to be identified as the Orangeburg Massacre. They held a memorial service for their slain friends. Every year since 1968 there has been a campus ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Massacre.

Hundreds of students descended on the State Capitol in Columbia on March 7 and again on March 14 to plea for justice, to demand more equitable funding for S.C. State and to criticize the governor. Eight student leaders from S.C. State met with Gov. McNair, and he infuriated the young people by continuing to praise the Highway Patrolmen and by insisting that the $8.8 million appropriation that President Nance had requested for South Carolina State was excessive and unreasonable. Days later, another group of students presented a list of grievances to Lt. Gov. John West and Greenwood Sen. John Drummond. Eventually the General Assembly did approve a $6 million bond issue for S.C. State.

The U. S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Ramsey Clark secured a court order on Feb. 22 opening the All Star Bowling Lanes to black people. John Stroman and James P. Davis were Harry Floyd’s first black customers.

The Department of Justice convened a federal grand jury in Columbia that October and November and heard the testimony of more than 40 witnesses. Justice Department attorneys sought felony indictments against nine S.C. Highway Patrolmen who admitted firing their weapons. But the 23-member grand jury would not indict the patrolmen on charges that they had violated the civil rights of the students by shooting them. Grand jurors apparently believed the law enforcement officers had acted in self-defense.

Three trials ensued over the next two years. Failing to get grand jury indictments, the Department of Justice then brought misdemeanor charges against the nine patrolmen. They were accused of having imposed summary punishment on the students. If found guilty, the maximum penalty would be a $1,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence. In the 10-day trial in federal district court in Florence in May 1969, three eyewitnesses including Strom and an FBI agent testified that they heard shooting from the campus before the patrolmen opened fire. Five eyewitnesses including three Highway Patrolmen (who had not been charged) contradicted them, testifying they heard no gunfire from the campus. Assistant State Attorney General J.C. Coleman defended the patrolmen and argued that their lives were in jeopardy as students advanced on them, and that the patrolmen had fired in self-defense. In less than two hours, a jury consisting of 10 white people and two black people acquitted the patrolmen.

In November 1970 a trial was held in Columbia in a civil suit as attorney Matthew Perry sought to recover monetary damages from the nine Highway Patrolmen on behalf of the families of Henry Smith, Delano Middleton and Samuel Hammond. Much of the testimony heard in the earlier criminal trial was heard again. In less than one hour, a jury consisting of 12 white people found in favor of the law enforcement officers. The families never received a penny in restitution.

Meanwhile Cleveland Sellers had gone on trial in Orangeburg in September 1970. All of the charges against him with one exception were dismissed by Circuit Court Judge John Grimball. The jury of nine white people and three black people found Sellers guilty of inciting a riot, NOT on the night of Feb. 8, but during the melee at the bowling alley on Feb. 6. He was fined $250 and sentenced to a year in prison. He served seven months at the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia. Sellers was the only person held legally responsible and punished for what had occurred in Orangeburg in early February 1968.

There never was an official state or federal report on the events involved in the Orangeburg Massacre. The FBI conducted a wide-ranging investigation and compiled more than 3,000 pages of testimony, evidence and photographs. But the Bureau issued no report. Furthermore it was later revealed that FBI agents intentionally “falsified information to protect the troopers” prior to the 1969 trial of the nine highway patrolmen.

Following the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970, Richard Nixon created the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. The nine-member commission chaired by former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton carefully investigated the killings at those two universities, but mentioned Orangeburg only in passing when it issued its 417-page report.

Despite repeated assurances by Gov. McNair that there would be an investigation and a report, there has never been a formal inquiry and analysis that resulted in a comprehensive report on the events that transpired in Orangeburg in early February 1968.

The years after

For decades after the Massacre, the black and white communities in Orangeburg remained deeply divided over the meaning and memory of what happened on Feb. 8, 1968. For most people in Orangeburg, the Massacre was a divisive issue and source on persistent racial animosity. For most African-Americans, the actions of the Highway Patrolmen represented nothing less than col- blooded murder as white law enforcement officers shot unarmed black students protesting peacefully on their campus. For most white people, the Highway Patrolmen had courageously defended and protected the town’s citizens and their property from destruction and mayhem at the hands of raging black militants stirred up by their incendiary leader, Cleveland Sellers.

Finally in 1999 on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Massacre, more than 250 black and white residents of the Orangeburg community — weary of the unending acrimony and vituperation -- called for racial reconciliation in a plea published in The Times and Democrat on Feb. 7: “Orangeburg, Let us Heal Ourselves …” That call had a dramatic and positive impact. In 2001 Gov. Jim Hodges expressed “deep regret” on behalf of the state at that year’s observance. In the audience at that ceremony were six Highway Patrolmen — three black men and three white men — and they sat virtually rubbing elbows with some of the men who had been shot by Highway Patrolmen in 1968. Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 issued a written apology. At the 40th anniversary observance in 2008, Mayor Paul Miller apologized for the City of Orangeburg.

In 2009 “Scarred Justice,” a one-hour documentary on the Massacre, was shown nationwide on public television stations, revealing to many people an event in civil rights history that they were unaware had happened. Calhoun Cornwell, an S.C. State student wrote and produced “Taking a Stand,” a 2010 play that depicted the people and events leading to and revolving around the Massacre. It was presented on campus and at the Koger Center in Columbia. The New York Times then ran a major feature story on Cornwell’s play. Jack Shuler, a native of Orangeburg and a graduate of the Orangeburg Preparatory School, provided a personal perspective on the meaning of the Massacre in his 2012 book, “Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town.”

While racial divisions certainly have not vanished, they have been reduced as a measure of reconciliation has taken place in Orangeburg over the past 50 years. The Orangeburg of 2018 is a far more harmonious community than the Orangeburg of 1968.

For that we can be grateful.


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