Orangeburg, 1968

by FRED GARDNER

Forty years ago on the campus of South Carolina State College, which is in the city of Orangeburg, three students were killed and 27 wounded when police fired into a group expressing outrage over the exclusion of Black people from the only bowling alley in town. It was night, the assignment editors hadn’t anticipated such violence, there was no TV coverage. The Associated Press falsely reported in a story carried by papers around the country that there had been "an exchange of gunfire," as if the students had fired at the police. The AP never ran a correction.

Two documentaries about the Orangeburg massacre are due out soon. According to a New York Times story April 18, filmmaker Dan Klores has been "thinking about Orangeburg and its obscurity in the historical memory for decades."  Me, too.

In February ’68 I was running a coffeehouse called The UFO on Main St. in Columbia, South Carolina, that was patronized by GIs from Fort Jackson (black and white) and some students from the university. One day Cleveland Sellers, an organizer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came to see our place and to discuss the possibility of doing something in concert -an action that would link domestic injustice and overseas intervention.  

While he was at the UFO, Sellers got word to hurry back to Orangeburg because things were getting heavy. I drove him the 40 miles and hung out at a soul food café as evening fell and the sounds of confrontation escalated -breaking glass, screeching tires, people running down the street full tilt, shouts of "Honky" and "Motherfucker." The shooting hadn’t started when I decided to head back to the UFO.  Cleveland Sellers would catch a bullet in the arm, get arrested, and be castigated as the "outside agitator" who had caused all the trouble. (Sellers grew up and went to high school in Denmark, SC, which is 20 miles from Orangeburg.)  The cops who fired on unarmed students would be charged with civil rights violations and acquitted. Only Cleve did time (for inciting to riot and riot).

Although the media coverage was generally scant and misleading, two reporters -Jack Bass of the Charlotte Observer and Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times- filed thorough, accurate stories, and then wrote a book, "The Orangeburg Massacre" (World Publishing, 1970). The introduction by Thomas Pettigrew discusses why what happened in Orangeburg got downplayed in America.  It wasn’t the number of casualties, Pettigrew observed: "Recall the intense interest in the triple civil rights murders near Philadelphia, Mississippi, a few years before…"  Nor was it Governor Robert McNair’s defense of the cops: "Was Governor George Wallace’s explanation for the Selma bridge brutality in 1965 taken seriously?"

The key factor, according to Pettigrew: "Orangeburg followed a succession of race riots in major northern cities… White America was frightened and its mood shifted. The Bull Connors and Sheriff Clarks who had served as the racial villains in the early 1960s were being replaced by the Rap Browns and the Panthers." This is undoubtedly true. But ‘White America’ isn’t monolithic, and the decision-making elites felt threatened not so much by Black Power rhetoric and inner-city looting as by the movement’s internationalist tendencies and growing opposition to the war in Viet Nam. This was certainly true of the ruling elite in South Carolina, which included the head of the House Armed Services Committee, L. Mendel Rivers, and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Strom Thurmond. 

Martin Luther King was killed in April ’68 after he had begun calling for an end to U.S. intervention in Viet Nam. I think something analogous was a factor in the Orangeburg massacre. There was something in the air in early ’68 -the vague prospect of the civil rights movement and the peace movement merging.  Cleveland Sellers personified this possibility. He had been drafted in retaliation for his civil rights work and had refused induction.  He was under surveillance from both the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). He asked black GIs what they thought they were fighting for in Viet Nam. He certainly was not directing the protests in Orangeburg. The outraged students had their own leaders, including several ROTC cadets. Their confrontation with the police escalated while Sellers was out of town.

It was SLED Chief J.P. Strom, with the unwavering backing of Gov. Robert McNair (considered a "moderate" on racial matters among southern governors), who led the small army that moved in on the South Carolina State campus. "There were 66 patrolmen backed up by 45 National Guardsmen armed with M-1 rifles and fixed bayonets," according to Bass and Nelson. "In addition, some of the 25 SLED agents in the area, several members of Orangeburg’s 28-man police force, and several sheriff’s deputies were nearby. At the moment of ultimate confrontation there were about as many lawmen and Guardsmen as there were students. In addition, 61 other state patrolmen and 395 other National Guardsmen were on duty in Orangeburg that night."

The state patrolmen had .38 caliber pistols. Many had been issued shotguns loaded with deadly double-ought buckshot. Some had carbines. Strom’s whole tactical approach -the number of troopers massed, the level of firepower, the decision to confront and push back the students (whose ultimate acting-out was to light a bonfire on campus)- virtually guaranteed that deadly mayhem would ensue.

Bass and Nelson provide a small piece of indirect, circumstantial evidence suggesting that the men responsible for the Orangeburg massacre were influenced by their obeisance to the military: "Strom had been a central figure in South Carolina’s record of racial peace… In 1964 he coolly handled an explosive situation that occurred when an integrated group of college students showed up to picket George Wallace at Columbia Municipal Airport."  On that occasion Strom ordered the pro-Wallace crowd to back off when they threatened to attack the protestors.

But in May ‘67 later Strom showed "less tolerance when antiwar demonstrators protested at the University of South Carolina over the granting of an honorary degree to General William Westmoreland, a South Carolina native then in command of United States troops in Vietnam. Strom ordered pickets hustled away from the campus chapel, where the ceremony was being held… Asked later why police moved against the pickets, who had been peaceful, Strom indicated that the governor wanted no antiwar demonstrations to mar the ceremony."

The Orangeburg Massacre took place February 8, 1968. The students who lost their whole, promising lives were Samuel Hammond (shot in the back), Henry Smith (shot five times), and Delano Middleton (a high school student whose mother worked as a maid at the college, shot seven times). 

 

 

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