An Actual Massacre That Was Ignored
With all the talk about massacres that didn’t happen (thanks, Kellyanne) or those that were under-reported or not reported by the media (thanks Kellyanne and Sean), it seems a fitting time to retell the story of an actual massacre that was both under-reported and ignored—The Orangeburg Massacre. It didn’t involve ISLAMIC TERRORISTS or inspire memes of Never
Forget Remember, like the Bowling Green incident did last week, but this one really happened. (If this looks familiar at all, it is an updated version of a page I wrote a year ago.)
Everyone remembers, or knows about, the students killed at Kent State in 1970. It has been memorialized in photos, stories and songs. Most know about the killings at Jackson State, which also took place in 1970.
But in February of 1968, in the town of Orangeburg, South Carolina, an event took place that seems to have evaded much commemoration—either in the civil rights annals or the college campus unrest stories of the 1960s.
I admit, I had never heard of it before living in South Carolina. In fact, I had never heard of it until I heard Bakari Sellers talk about it while he was on the campaign trail a few years ago. Bakari Sellers, in case you’re not familiar with him from his appearances on CNN (and I’m guessing by now you all know who he is) was elected to the South Carolina House in 2006, at the age of 22. He served until 2014, when he ran for Lieutenant Governor and lost. But Bakari’s telling about the Orangeburg Massacre isn’t just a random story—it’s personal. His father, Cleveland Sellers went to prison in the aftermath of the massacre.
Dr. Cleveland Sellers and Bakari Sellers
It all began with students from South Carolina State University protesting segregation at a local bowling alley. The protests and fighting escalated for a few days, and on February 8, there were about 150 protesters on campus, and the Carolina Highway Patrol was on hand to quell the disturbance. Eight officers fired on the protestors, and when the shooting stopped, twenty-eight people were injured, many of them shot in the back while running away. Three African American young men were killed—two SCSU students, Samuel Hammond, Jr. and Henry Smith; and a local high school student, Delano Middleton, who was sitting on the steps of a dormitory, waiting for his mother to get off work.
The police claimed the protestors fired at them (the protestors claimed to be
unarmed) and the Governor blamed it all on “outside agitators.”
Ramsey Clark thought differently. “They committed murder. Murder…that’s a harsh thing to say, but they did it,” said Clark, U.S. Attorney General in 1968. “The police lost their self control. They just started shooting. It was a slaughter. Double ought buckshot is what you use for deer. It’s meant to kill. One guy emptied his service revolver. That takes a lot of shooting. The (students) are running away. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow! My God, there’s a murderous intent there. We are lucky more weren’t killed.”
Clark said the student deaths were caused by police criminal acts. “The provocation for the incident was an absurd, provocative display of force,” he said.
For the first time in history, federal charges were brought against police officers for use of excessive force at a campus protest. The officers claimed they were in danger, and had been shot at by the protestors. Thirty six witnesses begged to differ with that account, and no evidence showed that any students were carrying guns. But all nine of the officers were acquitted.
In a state trial in 1970, Cleveland Sellers, who was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was convicted of inciting a riot at one of the earlier protests and served seven months in state prison. Dr. Cleveland Sellers is now President of Voorhees College. Here is Cleveland reflecting on the events of 1968.
“The Orangeburg Massacre has become the litmus test for race relations in South Carolina,” said State Rep. Bakari Sellers, son of South Carolina’s scapegoat during the shooting. “We celebrate it every year and no one seems to care or no one seems to want to understand what really happened. It’s a veil of secrecy that the state has placed over that and kept it that way for as long as possible.”
And here is Bakari’s emotional telling of the story.
It was before Kent State, before Jackson State—even before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. And, it has been pretty well obscured in history. But 49 years later, young black men are being shot by police who “fear for their lives” and who are seldom tried and even more infrequently convicted. Unrest is still being blamed on “outside agitators,” and the stories still get shaped to suit the political climate. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And now, with the orange yam in the White House (shudder), who knows what will happen next.
So, while we’ll “never remember” the Bowling Green Massacre, let’s hope a few more will now never forget the Orangeburg Massacre.