No melody, but the memory lingers on – Orangeburg Massacre, South Carolina

When National Guard troops fired on students protesting the Vietnam
War at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, newspapers decried the
lethal use of force the left four students dead. Television stations
replayed the scene over and over again, and songs were sung to the
memory of the fallen students on radio airwaves across the country.

Four dead in Ohio.

It was in stark contrast to the nation’s reaction, just two years
earlier, to the killing of three civil rights protestors and the
wounding of twenty-seven others who were gunned down by state troopers
at South Carolina State University (SCSU) on February 8, 1968.

The three dead in South Carolina were: Samuel Hammond Jr.,
eighteen, who planned to be a teacher; Delano Herman Middleton,
seventeen, who was still in high school; and Henry Smith, eighteen, who
was known as “Smitty” around campus and mentioned in a college
questionnaire that his life goals were simply “happiness and success.”

No songs commemorated their memory. No television station, not one
newspaper denounced the local police officers who incited the incident,
or the nine highway patrolmen who opened fire on the students, or then
governor Robert E. McNair — who claimed he was powerless in the
situation — or the larger community, which turned a deaf ear.

But their memory remained on the SGSU campus, where annual memorial
services honor the casualties of the “Orangeburg Massacre.”

And finally, as the thirtieth anniversary of the incident has come
and gone, the state of South Carolina seems to be putting forth an
effort to pay homage to the three slain civil rights soldiers. The
state general assembly recently passed a resolution recommending that
February 8 be a day of remembrance for the students. The resolution
also includes a request to posthumously award them the Order of the the
Palmetto — the state’s highest civilian honor.

But Hammond, Middleton, and Smith didn’t intend to become martyrs.
They just wanted to go bowling. They wanted every Black person to be
able to go bowling.

Lighting the Fuse

The sign that hung in the window of the bowling alley which was
walking distance from SCSU’s campus read, “White Only” — a reminder of
how slowly Orangeburg was in obeying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that
banned segregation in public places.

SCSU students had a history of sit-ins, demonstrations, and
activism. But Cleveland Sellers, now a University of South Carolina
professor, wasn’t enthusiastic about the demonstration that students
had organized or the night of February 5, 1968, at the bowling alley.
Then twenty-two years old, he already knew from experience with the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights
organizations the dangers of public demonstrations at night.

“The first night that the students went down to the bowling alley,
the police closed it down,” recalls Sellers. “They told the students if
they returned again they would be arrested.”

The next day, the students returned.

“The plan was to go and test it again,” said Sellers. “But the students were arrested.”

As the police watched, several students were allowed into the
building. They were promptly arrested for trespassing. The students who
remained outside returned to campus with the news.

A crowd of approximately 400 faculty, staff, and students from SCSU
— along with students from nearby Claflin College — returned to the
bowling alley parking lot. When police saw the size of the crowd, they
released the arrested students.

As the crowd was beginning to return to the SCSU campus, fire
engines arrived on the scene. According to Sellers, the fire engines
incited the students, who knew all too well about the use of fire
engine hoses to control Black crowds.

“They started shouting, `Where’s the fire? We don’t see any fire,'” Sellers said.

When the bowling alley’s window was broken by a hurled object, the
police advanced on the crowd. More than a dozen students were beaten by
police and hospitalized.

The crowd dispersed, but not before shattering the windows of local businesses and parked cars along the way back to campus.

The next day, as SCSU students continued to protest, Sellers grew worried that the situation was getting out of control.

The Explosion

Then came Thursday, February 8.

“That morning, you could tell Something was wrong,” said John
Stroman, a student leader who played a central role in organizing the
demonstration. He recalls warning his friends not to go out on campus
because “those crackers will shoot.”

By then, the National Guard had been called in and the campus had been sealed off.

Early that evening, the students built a bonfire on campus as they
huddled to discuss what their next course of action would be. But the
state’s highway patrolmen, who at this point had the campus surrounded,
called the fire department. They said the fire was a danger to the
community.

At about 8:30 p.m., Sellers, who was asleep in his dorm room, was
awakened by a friend who said that he had heard gunshots. Sellers then
went outside to find out what was going on.

“I saw police crouching,” Sellars remembers. “Then I saw my friend,
Henry Smith. I wanted to tell him to move the students out of the area,
maybe to a classroom or something. I called out his name.”

The next thing that Sellers knew, guns were firing. The following
eight seconds — that’s how long the gunfire lasted, according to
Sellers — “seemed to last an eternity.”

Twenty-seven people were wounded, three were dead. Henry Smith —
who was shot in the back of his legs — died not from the gunshot
wound, but from a brain concussion he suffered from police officers who
beat him.

The officers apparently had Smith confused with Sellers, who says
that because of his work with SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and other
organizations, he was a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO mission
against civil rights activists.

Another female student — who was six months pregnant, according to
Stroman — would lose her unborn child after she was beaten by police
officers who stopped her car while she was on the way home after
dropping off wounded students at the hospital.

The Aftermath

Sellers, now forty-nine, was hit in the left shoulder. He says that
his hospital visit was interrupted by law enforcement officials who
came to arrest him. He remains the only person to ever be arrested and
convicted of any charges having to do with the protest. Although
Sellers did not arrive on campus until just before the gunshots were
fired, he was charged with inciting a riot and spent seven months in
jail.

Some of the highway patrolmen involved in the incident have since
expressed regrets. Others, like patrolman Collie Mets, feel the
students killed don’t deserve any recognition.

“They weren’t brave. They were the ones who started the mess. They
were agitators,” Mets said. “I don’t think a post-humous award is
warranted for people who stirred up trouble. For it to be awarded is a
shame.”

For others, recognizing the event and honoring those who lost their lives is something that’s long overdue.

“In order to soothe the pain, we feel it’s tremendously important
not to forget because, unfortunately, such incidents can happen again,”
said Carl Jones, vice president of student services at South Carolina
State.

Stroman says he often thinks about his slain classmates. And every year, he attends SCSU’s memorial that honors their lives.

“I haven’t missed one yet,” he says. “They’ll see me there every year as long as I can walk.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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