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The Orangeburg Massacre

At 10:33 p.m. on the night of Feb. 8, 1968, eight to ten seconds of police gunfire left three young black men dying and 27 wounded on the campus of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Exactly 33 years later, Governor Jim Hodges addressed an overflow crowd there in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Auditorium and referred directly to the “Orangeburg Massacre”—an identifying term for the event that itself had been controversial among South Carolinians. Gov. Hodges called what happened “a great tragedy for our state” and expressed “deep regret.”

His audience that day included eight men in their fifties—including a clergyman, a college professor, and a retired Army lieutenant colonel—who had been shot that fateful night. Some of them still had lead in their bodies from gunshot wounds. For the first time, survivors were honored at this annual memorial service for the three students who died, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith. Their deaths, which happened more than two years before gunfire by national guardsmen in Ohio killed four students at Kent State University, marked the first such tragedy on any American college campus.

In an oral history project done during that 33rd anniversary, the eight attending survivors told their stories. Robert Lee Davis, a 260-pound football player when he was shot, was one of them. He drove from the small county seat town an hour away, where he worked with emotionally disturbed children. He told his interviewer, “One thing I can say is that I’m glad you all are letting us do the talking, the ones that were actually involved, instead of outsiders that weren’t there, to tell you exactly what happened.”

The shootings occurred two nights after an effort by students at the then almost all-black college to bowl at the city’s only bowling alley. The owner refused. Tensions rose and violence erupted. When it ended, nine students and one city policeman received hospital treatment for injuries. Other students were treated at the college infirmary. College faculty and administrators at the scene witnessed at least two instances in which a female student was held by one officer and clubbed by another.

After two days of escalating tension, a fire truck was called to douse a bonfire lit by students on a street in front of the campus. State troopers—all of them white, with little training in crowd control—moved to protect the firemen. As more than 100 students retreated to the campus interior, a tossed banister rail struck one trooper in the face. He fell to the ground bleeding. Five minutes later, almost 70 law enforcement officers lined the edge of the campus. They were armed with carbines, pistols and riot guns—short-barreled shotguns that by dictionary definition are used “to disperse rioters rather than to inflict serious injury or death.” But theirs were loaded with lethal buckshot, which hunters use to kill deer. Each shell contained 9 to 12 pellets the size of a .32 caliber pistol slug.

As students began returning to the front to watch their bonfire go out, a patrolman suddenly squeezed several rounds from his carbine into the air—apparently intended as warning shots. As other officers began firing, students fled in panic or dived for cover, many getting shot in their backs and sides and even the soles of their feet.

Davis recalled in his oral history interview, “The sky lit up. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! And students were hollering, yelling and running. 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.”

Later, Davis lay on the bloody floor of the campus infirmary, head to head with Sam Hammond, a friend and quiet freshman halfback who also got shot in the back, and watched him die. Henry Smith, a tall, slender ROTC student who had called his mother at two a.m. to tell her about the “shameful” beating of the female students by policemen, died after arriving at the hospital with five separate wounds. Delano Middleton, a 200-pound high school football and basketball star whose mother worked as a maid at the college, died after asking her to recite the 23rd Psalm for him and then repeating it himself while laying on a hospital table with blood oozing from a chest wound over the heart.

Of 66 troopers on the scene, eight later told FBI agents they had fired their riot guns at the students after hearing shots. Some fired more than once. A ninth patrolman said he fired his .38 caliber Colt service revolver six times as “a spontaneous reaction to the situation.” At least one city policeman—he later became police chief—fired a shotgun.

At a noon press conference the next day in Columbia, South Carolina Governor Robert E. McNair called it “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina” and referred to “this unfortunate incident.” He expressed concern that the state’s “reputation for racial harmony had been blemished.” Contrary to all evidence, McNair also said the shooting occurred off campus. He placed blame on “black power advocates” and added other inaccurate embellishments.

In federal court more than a year later, a jury took less than two hours to acquit nine troopers charged with imposing summary punishment without due process of law.

In the fall of 1970, two-and-a-half years after the shooting, a jury in Orangeburg convicted Cleveland L. Sellers, Jr. of “riot” because of limited activity at the bowling alley two nights before the shooting. Sellers, who had grown up 20 miles from Orangeburg, had returned from the Deep South combat zone of the civil rights struggle as national program director for the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The presiding judge threw out charges of conspiracy to riot and incitement to riot, but the charge of riot stood. “Nobody here has ever put the defendant into the area of rioting on Wednesday or Thursday [the night of the shooting] with the exception that he was wounded and that to my mind means very little,” the judge commented. Sellers, who is profiled in the book as “the scapegoat,” served seven months of a one-year sentence in state prison, with early release because of good behavior.

The Associated Press initially misreported the shooting as “a heavy exchange of gunfire.” In the aftermath of major urban riots, the national media’s interest in civil rights faded, and what happened on the campus at Orangeburg where the victims were black, was out of tune with the times and not considered “news.”

In the concluding sentence of a 2002 postscript to a new Mercer University Press paperback edition of the book, Bass and co-author Jack Nelson wrote: “Whether the state eventually provides restitution as the final stage of reconciliation, as Florida did more than a half-century after the destruction of the all-black town of Rosewood, remains to be seen.”