If the Jackson State killings of 1970 are virtually unknown next to those at Kent State, the 1968 Orangeburg massacre—in which three black students were shot to death by South Carolina state troopers, 47 years ago this week—is even more forgotten. It occurred on the night of Feb. 8, 1968, the third night of protests by students at South Carolina State College, a historically black college in Orangeburg, who were trying to desegregate a bowling alley in the town, about 35 miles southeast of Columbia. It was the first time students at an American university were killed by police during a political demonstration. “The sky lit up. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! And students were hollering, yelling and running,” football player John Davis, one of the 28 people wounded, told Jack Bass, coauthor of The Orangeburg Massacre. “I went into a slope near the front end of the campus, and I kneeled down. I got up to run, and I took one step; that’s all I can remember. I got hit in the back.”
The protests began on the night of Feb. 6, when five South Carolina State football players tried to go bowling at the All Star Bowling Lanes in downtown Orangeburg. The owner, who did not believe that the public-accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to his business, refused to let them play or serve them food. When one picked up a salt shaker at the snack bar, the owner’s wife threw it out, proceeding to do the same with everything else they touched, student organizer John Stroman recalled to USA Today in 2012. When Stroman hugged the jukebox and said, “Now, throw this in the trash can,” the owner called police, who beat them with billy clubs.
The next night, more students returned to protest, and 15 were arrested. The angry students returned to the campus, breaking windows in stores and cars along the way. S.C. State professors said they saw police officers holding female students down and clubbing them at least twice. Gov. Robert McNair called in the National Guard. On the cold night of Feb. 8, protesters built a bonfire in the street next to the campus and rallied around it. Firefighters were called in to put it out, and an all-white squad of state troopers surged in to protect them. Someone threw a piece of a banister that hit one trooper in his face, bloodying him and knocking him down. About five minutes later, almost 70 cops armed with shotguns moved in.
At about 10:30 p.m., one officer fired several shots into the air, and several others opened fire, spraying the crowd with double-ought buckshot, pellets about the size of .32-caliber bullets. Twenty-eight people were wounded, most shot in the back or the soles of their feet as they ran away, and three were killed: Henry Smith, 19, football player Samuel Hammond, 18, and local high-school student Delano Middleton, 17. The shooting lasted “maybe six or seven seconds,” Davis recalled. “We got on to the infirmary, and there was blood all over the place,” said Jordan Simmons III, who was hit near the spine and believes his thick winter coat saved him from being more seriously wounded. “It was a shock to many of the students that there were no bullhorns, no whistles, no anything that indicated that this kind of extremely lethal action would be taken on these students,” Cleveland Sellers, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist who helped organize the protests, told Democracy Now! in 2008. “And the numbers that were actually wounded go much higher than the thirty. Many of the students chose not to go to the hospital, and so their injuries were not recorded.”
Gov. McNair blamed the shooting on “black power advocates.” Sellers, who was also wounded, was arrested in the hospital emergency room. He was convicted of inciting to riot in 1970, and served seven months of a one-year felony sentence. He was pardoned in 1993, and is now president of Voorhees College, a private, historically black college in Denmark, S.C. The nine police officers who admitted they’d fired their guns were indicted on federal civil-rights charges of “imposing summary punishment without due process of law.” In 1969, a jury took less than two hours to find them not guilty. The story rated little more than a blip in the national news media. It got a small blurb in the New York Times, and was largely forgotten by the time the Kent State killings, when the National Guard gunned down four students during an antiwar protest in Ohio, made national headlines two years later.
Why was there not more coverage? One reason was that the initial Associated Press story erroneously reported the shooting as “a heavy exchange of gunfire,” which framed it as a riot, an attack by blacks on police, instead of as a case of police killing unarmed black protesters. Another is that by 1968, the Southern civil-rights movement had won its major victories, attention had shifted to the more subtle discrimination of the North, urban ghetto riots had muddied the clear moral waters the civil-rights movement depended on, and “white backlash” was on the rise. Southern alternative-press journalist Dave Nolan, who covered the Sellers trial, wrote that there might have been a public outcry about the Orangeburg massacre if it had happened in 1964 instead of 1968. Campus protests were a major story in 1968, but an obscure small-town Southern black college was a long way from elite universities like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley. And the outrage-name-recognition factor was lower for South Carolina than it would have been for Alabama or Mississippi—although the Palmetto State had been one of the more hardcore segregationist jurisdictions in Dixie. (South Carolina’s leading political figure of the era, longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond, was the first major Southern Democrat to switch to the Republicans after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, beginning the process that led to the GOP’s current domination of the South. Thurmond, however, was not opposed to one kind of race-mixing: He fathered a daughter by his family’s teenage black maid.) Forty-seven years later, survivors say much has changed, but still not enough. “The bowling alley was not the main issue. The bowling alley was just a stop-off,” John Stroman told the Orangeburg Times and Democrat Feb. 6. The main issue was equal rights and educational opportunities for Afro-Americans, he said. “Do you think the struggle is over? You have work to do. There have been some changes, [but] your new enemy is economics. In many areas of this country, secondary schools are as segregated now as they were when I was in school,” Bobby Eaddy, one of the wounded students, told a memorial ceremony in Orangeburg Feb. 8 “Law enforcement officials are still imposing summary punishment. Has anything changed?”