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Remembering the Orangeburg Massacre

Remembering the Orangeburg Massacre
South Carolina State University student protest often ignored by historians

By Linda Meggett Brown

Although it has been 33 years since the Orangeburg Massacre, the memory of the tragic events that took place the night of Feb. 8, 1968, remains vivid and painful for the victims who survived and is a mark of shame for the entire state.
“We regret deeply what happened. Even today, South Carolina bows its head, bends its knees and begins to search for reconciliation,” Gov. Jim Hodges said at a commemoration ceremony last month at S.C. State University, where the tragedy occurred. He is the first governor to participate in the annual memorial program.
On that devastating night, nine South Carolina Highway Patrolmen fired shotguns into a crowd of Black students who were demonstrating in front of the campus. Virtually all the students hit by shotgun pellets were wounded in the back. The clash stemmed from a protest over a segregated bowling alley. Two days after clashing with police at the bowling alley, S.C. State students and many others from the town of Orangeburg had gathered around a bonfire at the edge of campus. Firefighters and police went in to douse the flames.
Moments later, screams and gunfire erupted as students and others scrambled to safety. Most of the protesters escaped unharmed. But three students, including one high school student, were killed, and 27 were injured.
Although historians devote attention to the student protests at the University of California -Berkeley and Columbia University, S.C. State is often ignored. Four students at Kent State University were killed May 4, 1970, two years after the incident at S.C. State, yet it gained far more attention and is often referred to as the first time protesting students were
fired upon.
The Orangeburg Massacre is often left out of the history books. Advocates stress that this legacy must be told. “S.C. State didn’t get the same attention as Kent State because our students were Black. It wasn’t newsworthy,” says Thomas Kennerly of Columbia, S.C. “Lives were lost and we just failed to let it be known. There was so much going on with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s death.”
If government officials had reacted in a positive way, all that history would not have been ignored, he says.
The anniversary each year brings back many reminders for Kennerly. “I was responsible for carrying a young man to the infirmary on my back. My mother was working there as a nurse so I knew I would see her. I didn’t know I was hit until I got there,” he says. “I was hit three times myself. I could have damaged that guy more. In the heat of the moment we were so concerned for life. The Lord was just with us.”

Telling their stories
Survivors like Kennerly are telling their stories this year for an oral history project that will be made into a documentary. Dr. William Hine, a history professor at S.C. State, is spearheading the project with College of Charleston History Department Chairman Dr. Marvin Dulaney and Dr. Jack Bass, professor of history and social science. Bass co-
authored the book The Orangeburg Massacre.
Cleveland Sellers of Denmark, S.C., was one of the 27 wounded survivors and the only man to serve time in connection with the riots. He said in an emotional speech that the Orangeburg Massacre has been ignored too long.
For Sellers, the 1968 incident meant massive distortion, criminal injustice and persecution. He spent seven months in jail on rioting charges and says he was made to feel like a predator for 33 years. After 25 years, he was pardoned in 1993.
Sellers was overcome during his speech and walked away from the podium in tears, shaking his head. The audience gave Sellers a standing ovation, encouraging him to continue. Sellers returned to the microphone, supported by the campus Episcopal minister — and fellow survivor — Jordan Simmons.
Simmons could not hold back tears that rolled down his cheeks. He says that on the night of Feb. 8, 1968, he went to see what was happening after he visited his fiancée (now his wife) at Claflin College next door. She warned him not to go but he went anyway, says Simmons, a retired U.S. Army colonel and project manager at Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C.  
The memories remain painful for many of the survivors, making it difficult to return to the scene. One-third attended the ceremony, but some men who had said they would attend did not. Two of the victims are now deceased. “We’re all getting older, and the people involved in this will eventually be passing on,” Simmons says.
It’s time to promote healing and move closer to some type of closure, says Dr. Leroy Davis, president of S.C. State.
The institution remains committed to preserving the legacy of this event. Three markers inscribed with the names of survivors were unveiled during the ceremony. The new markers surround a four-foot monument honoring the three who were killed. Last year an 8-foot-tall historical marker was erected at the shooting site.
Davis was an 18-year-old freshman at S.C. State in 1968, and the events of that day influenced his life. Because he works at the site where the shooting occurred, Davis says, he is reminded every day of what happened.
South Carolina Highway Patrol Capt. David Deering, who brought five of his co-workers to the ceremony, also believes the time has come to move on.
Although he was a 16-year-old high school student in Winsboro, S.C., at the time of the incident, Deering says he made it a priority to attend the observance. “I live and work in this community and the Highway Patrol has a great relationship with S.C. State. We can’t change what happened. I feel we have a better Orangeburg.”
Kennerly, who was a senior when he was shot three times, agrees that the past should be laid to rest, but he stresses that it is also important to teach students about history. Those events of 1968 could have been predicted — and could happen again.
“We’ve come far, but there’s still so much more that needs to take place,” he says. “It’s such a vivid part of our history that’s just lost to our youth. We need to tell the story of the struggle that is so real to us — the pain and suffering,” Kennerly says. 

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