“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.”
In 1999, 250 Orangeburg citizens, Black and white, used a full-page advertisement in The Times and Democrat to urge this community to cease the divisiveness over the tragic events of 1968, to use Feb. 8 every year as a day of memoriam and respect.
“Orangeburg, let us heal ourselves …” remains necessary today after the deaths of Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton on Feb. 8, 1968.
The three students were shot to death and 28 others were hurt by state troopers during a prolonged confrontation centered around the desegregation of an Orangeburg bowling alley. It is known as the “Orangeburg Massacre” after the title of a book by journalists Jack Bass and Jack Nelson.
The milestone statement of 1999 sought to put an end to the seemingly endless cycle of rewriting the accounts of that night -- a cycle that annually produced new wounds in Orangeburg and elsewhere.
The statement acknowledged the importance of remembering Smith, Hammond and Middleton, and asked that the remembrance “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,” the statement said.
Today is that day of memoriam.
The years since 1999 have produced significant events. Two years after the Orangeburg declaration, then-Gov. Jim Hodges spoke at the memorial service, expressing official regret for what happened here in 1968. For the first time, Highway Patrol troopers were in attendance.
Then in 2003, Gov. Mark Sanford surprised many by issuing a formal apology. “I think it’s appropriate to tell the African American community in South Carolina that we don’t just regret what happened in Orangeburg 35 years ago -- we apologize for it.”
It is important that people never forget what happened in Orangeburg on Feb. 8, 1968. Our community is forever linked with a historic tragedy.
In the spirit of the 1999 declaration, Orangeburg remains a place that can be a model for cooperation among races.
When Mercer University Press in 2002 released a revised edition of the “Orangeburg Massacre,” a new postscript by the authors noted the story “has taken on new life and a path toward healing and reconciliation.”
It is a path upon which our community must pledge to remain as we remember and foster unity where there has been division.