February 8, 1968: The Orangeburg Massacre

February 8, 1968: The Orangeburg Massacre

This piece is a summation of “The Orangeburg Massacre” by Jack Bass and Jack Nelson (Mercer University Press, reprint 2002), both white southern journalists and Nieman Fellows at Harvard, who covered the Orangeburg Student Riots for The Los Angeles Times and The Charlotte Observer. Originally published in 1970, their reporting of the incident in this book has been given lasting high marks for accuracy. Bass has said elsewhere “The book has been accepted by historians as the definitive account of what happened that night and of actions that took place in its aftermath. This summation is faithful to the reporting of Bass and Nelson. This is not written to right wrongs, or to pick at scabs, and it points few fingers at individual players, for the communities want simply to move forward from this tragedy. To move forward ignoring what happened that week 50 years ago is to refuse to learn from history.

As I write we have wandered into 2018, the 50th anniversary of 1968. 1968 was a year of civil horror including the My Lai Massacre, the USS Pueblo “incident”, and the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. Early in the year, during the first week of February, the Orangeburg Student Riots culminated in the Orangeburg Massacre on the evening of February 8th.

I recently read the book for the first time and discovered a captivating but personally difficult read. Despite the detailed and thoroughly cited reporting, and the fact that the events took place right in my “front” yard, it was difficult for me because of the human tragedy that had played on my doorstep, one I previously had no true idea of – I really had not been paying attention – and what I did see those years ago was the “official version” of the story of “the Orangeburg Incident.”

Orangeburg is the county seat of one of the largest counties in South Carolina, stretching over 60 miles from the Sand Hills in the mid-state down through the Upper Coastal Plains well into the Lower Coastal Plains and the flats toward Charleston. It is the mercantile hub for an agricultural area covering three counties and more. The main industry of the town in 1968 was education of Black college students. Reasonably good progress had by then been made in integration of the races in retail business establishments (being of course good for business). However progress is never fast enough for the deprived and one of the most visible of the many lagging areas for civil rights was the only bowling alley in town, barred, of course from Blacks – including the students at Claflin College and South Carolina State College.  The students, and other Black citizens, had to travel 40 miles to Columbia to bowl. As a result the bowling alley became the center for expression of student dissatisfaction and protest. The owner was adamant in his refusal to allow entry to his premises by Black citizens, despite attempts by State and Local officials to diplomatically seek a solution.

Over the course of several nights that week, there were protests including marches from the campuses to the bowling alley, actions which resulted in several arrests, beatings of students (including coeds) by law enforcement, and damage to business property along the way back to the Black campuses. On Thursday night, Orangeburg became an armed camp of law enforcement officers, including the S. C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the S. C. Highway Patrol, and the Orangeburg Police Department; supported by the S. C. Army National Guard in reserve. There were 66 state patrolmen and 45 National Guardsmen in front of the campus. In addition there were 61 other state patrolmen and 395 other National Guardsmen on duty elsewhere in Orangeburg that night. There were 25 SLED agents, and members of the city police department and county sheriff’s department in the area.

A bonfire, built by the students in a side street at the front of the S. C. State College campus, was soon extinguished by the Orangeburg Fire Department. Students began to hurl objects including pieces of brick, stones, dirt clods and at least two pieces of wood (one of which hit a S. C. Highway Patrolman in the face inflicting serious injury). About 5 minutes later (according to testimony) some of the Patrolmen opened fire on the students who were unarmed and on their campus. According to testimony, the Patrolmen used 12 gauge Remington Model 870 repeating shotguns loaded with buckshot, .30 caliber carbines, and service revolvers. Although the S. C. National guard was equipped with gas masks and both CS and CN gas, they elected not to employ gas as a riot control tool, reportedly because the S. C. Highway Patrol officers were not equipped with gas masks. The firing lasted 5 to 10 seconds according to testimony and a CBS-TV film. Some patrolmen did not fire their weapons. None of the S. C. National Guard fired their weapons. The State police were in charge, it seems, and they were equipped, not for riot control, but to kill.

Three students died, and 27 were wounded. As it turned out, many of the victim’s wounds were in their back, side, and/or the soles of their feet.

Cleveland Sellers, a young Black man from adjoining Bamberg County, had come to Orangeburg as an organizer the previous year. He had served as national program director for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and had become known as a voice of moderation in that organization. By the time of the Orangeburg Riot, he was released on bond charged with violating the Selective Service Act (similar to the charges brought against Mohammed Ali). During the time leading up to the culmination of the student riot, he was observed by authorities in Orangeburg to be operating on the fringes of the student protests. He was made the scapegoat in the official versions of the “incident”. After he was treated for a minor wound that night, he was arrested and charged with “. . . arson, inciting to riot, assault and battery with intent to kill, destruction of personal property, damaging real property, housebreaking, and grand larceny.” A grand jury later failed to confirm any but three riot related charges.

In September 1970 Sellers was brought to trial in Orangeburg. In the interim he had been lecturing at Cornell and had begun graduate study at Harvard. The jury found him guilty of one charge despite the fact that the judge seemed to stop just short of ordering acquittal on all charges. The judge sentenced Sellers to one year in prison and a fine of $250. He served 7 months, he said, as a “political prisoner”. He earned a Master’s degree in education at Harvard University. He was officially pardoned by the State of S. C. in July 1993 and was therefore able to begin a new career as a faculty member at the University of S. C.

The official versions of the event found no culpability for Harry Floyd, the owner of the bowling alley, who opened the bowling alley to Blacks soon after the “incident” in the face of U. S. Justice Department action.

Nine S. C. Highway Patrolmen were charged with “. . . imposing summary punishment upon . . .” the rioting students, and were tried in Federal Court, Florence, S.C. in May, 1969. This trial officially exposed “. . . the major facts of what really happened at Orangeburg . . .” as opposed to the “official version” espoused by the State, and the erroneous press reports in the aftermath of the event. The nine were found not guilty.

I had no idea. My family farm was 8 miles out into the country toward Bamberg County and I was engrossed in growing a farm and a family. My co-workers were both Black and white and they said little to me about the goings on in town that week. Then on Thursday, Marion, a sweet young man, stated that he was going to town that night because “ . . . they were going to break the banks open and there would be money in the street, and free Pepsi.” Three sweet young Black men died that night in Orangeburg.

Samuel Hammond, Jr.
Delano Middleton
Henry Smith

Near the site that they fell is a waist high granite marker with the inscription:


After that week Orangeburg and S. C. would never be the same. A few of the State and local cast of characters conducted themselves in a manner to make us proud. Many more certainly wish they had the opportunity to do it over again differently. Some, no doubt, do not understand the difference. Some acted in the open – some from behind the screen of government or the shield of law enforcement. We can all learn from their individual actions and statements; and that is why this book is humanly important.

Sadly, memory of the heartbreaking event was eclipsed, then and now, by the other civil horrors of the time, and swept away in the “official version.” A little over two years later, the State of Ohio, at Kent State University, demonstrated that they had learned nothing from Orangeburg. Soon thereafter, the first edition of this book appeared to exceptionally good reviews but the promotion and distribution of the book seemed to be stymied, possibly by the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover.

In the 48 years since the initial publication of this book, others have taken a hand at writing about the events of that week – but not many, and with similar difficulty in being heard. In 2012 an Orangeburg native, Jack Shuler, published “Blood & Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town” (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press) and received good reviews from Jack Bass and Pat Conroy and others. Writer and producer Frank Beacham’s multimedia eBook “The Orangeburg Massacre”promotes a considerable body of his work on the topic including his (2007) “Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem and Murder: Second Edition” (Booklocker).

And to this day we militarize our law enforcement agencies.

And it remains extremely difficult to indict and convict police officers for shooting unarmed Black men.


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