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Today marks the 51st anniversary of events that The Times and Democrat in 1981 designated as the major news story of the newspaper's first 100 years.

There will never be total agreement on details surrounding the tragedy of Feb. 8, 1968. What is fact is that three students died and 28 were injured when they were shot near the South Carolina State University campus by state troopers during a confrontation that grew from segregation at a bowling alley on Russell Street.

The title of a book by journalists Jack Bass and Jack Nelson gave the incident the name by which it is widely known: "The Orangeburg Massacre." But many of the people involved during the turmoil and crisis that surrounded the shootings, and generations since, haven't read that book. Too few know anything about those days in 1968 when Orangeburg was on the brink.

As family members and citizens died or moved away, and as student and community interest lessened over time, the annual memorial service for the three students who died grew smaller. That notably changed a year ago at the 50th anniversary. But what of this year and beyond?

Over the years we've interviewed students and Orangeburg citizens about what they know of the watershed events of February 1968. You'd be surprised how little.

The Orangeburg Massacre? "Oh yeah, that was terrible. He killed a lot of people. It was like the Son of Sam,” one student said as far back as the 25th anniversary.

Such response is not rare.

Copies of the book are not routinely part of Black History Month displays in Orangeburg. You can find copies in the libraries and purchase them on the internet, but there is no big demand.

We believe now as much as then that it is important for Orangeburg to understand the events of 1968 for what they were -- more than a violent confrontation.

The segregated and unequal societies that were the formal social order of 1968 had to go -- and incidents such as those in Orangeburg happened as part of the process of tearing down an old order and giving birth to a new.

Confrontation was inevitable in 1968. That the confrontation resulted in the shootings was not. That was a horrible tragedy.

Henry Smith of Marion, Samuel Hammond Jr. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Delano Middleton of Orangeburg did not die in vain. Their families were forever deprived of loved ones and society will never know what their other contributions might have been, but their names are etched on the history of Orangeburg and important social change.

Dr. William C. Hine, author and former S.C. State history professor, has written regarding the civil rights victories of the late Thurgood Marshall in South Carolina: "It did not create a racial paradise, but how many black and white Southerners would want to return to the pre-1954 days? Marshall and his band of legal attorneys and scholars could take satisfaction that they were right, and that they were responsible for fostering changes that made America a better place for all of its people."

The events of 1968 in Orangeburg were a tragic part of that process of change.

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