In 1968, Three Students Were Killed by Police. Today, Few Remember the Orangeburg Massacre

The shootings occurred two years before the deaths of students at Kent State University, but remain a little-known incident in the Civil Rights Movement

Cleveland Sellers
Cleveland Sellers, center, stands with officers after his arrest in Orangeburg, S.C., where three were killed and 28 others wounded on Feb. 8, 1968. AP Photo

Recalling the event decades later, Robert Lee Davis remembered the chaotic noise and fear that permeated the night of February 8, 1968. “Students were hollering, yelling and running,” Davis said. “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.” He was among the 28 students of South Carolina State College injured that day in the Orangeburg Massacre; his friend, freshman Samuel Hammond, who had also been shot in the back, died of his wounds. Later that night, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith would also die; all three killed by the police were only 18 years old.

Despite being the first deadly confrontation between university students and law enforcement in United States history, the Orangeburg Massacre is a rarely remembered tragedy. Occurring two years before the better-known Kent State University shootings, and two months before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the incident “barely penetrated the nation’s consciousness,” writes Jack Bass in his 1970 book The Orangeburg Massacre. Fifty years later, the events of the evening remain contested, and no formal investigation into the incident has ever been undertaken.

Although some news organizations, including the Associated Press, characterized the shootings as a “riot” at the time, the Orangeburg massacre came after a long series of clashes with local law enforcement and politicians. The city, located between Columbia and Charleston, had about 14,000 residents at the time of the killing. Home to South Carolina State College (today South Carolina State University) and Claflin College, both HBCUs, Orangeburg “played a really important role in the activism happening throughout South Carolina,” says Jack Shuler, a professor of English at Denison University and the author of Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town.

King himself came through the town on multiple occasions to deliver speeches, students protested for desegregation, and pastors worked to foster change throughout the community, Shuler says. “The massacre wasn’t just a random thing that happened. It was part of the longer story, which goes back to the founding of the community.”

By the winter of 1968, students at the two colleges set their sights on one particular target: All-Star Bowling Lanes, owned by white proprietor Harry Floyd. Despite the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, Floyd continued to refuse African-Americans service. On February 5, a group of students went to the bowling alley and defiantly sat at the lunch counter until the police were called and the business closed early.

The next day, the students returned and again entered the bowling alley, whereupon 15 of them were arrested. Hearing word of the arrests, hundreds of students poured into a parking lot nearby. Orangeburg police officers and state troopers confronted the growing crowd. Tensions began to diffuse once the arrested students were told they’d be freed, but at just that moment a fire truck arrived, causing new pandemonium. As civil rights activist and university educator Cleveland Sellers wrote in his autobiography, the fire truck suggested to the crowd that the authorities were ramping up their efforts because the powerful hoses had been turned on them during a demonstration in 1963, causing injuries and illness.   

Pushed against the front doors of the bowling alley in their panic, the students knocked in a glass pane and were immediately set upon by the police officers, who brutally beat several young women. As the students fled for their respective campuses, several broke shop windows and defaced cars along the way.

By February 7, Orangeburg mayor E.O. Pendarvis agreed to address the students. Although the meeting was largely unproductive, the mayor did agree to share the students’ requests with the city council. Among their list of demands were a call to end police brutality, a commission on fair employment in Orangeburg, the elimination of discrimination in public services like doctors’ offices, and the creation of a biracial human relations committee. But South Carolina governor Robert McNair had already called in the National Guard, further escalating the sense of impending disaster.

“Had this been a protest at Clemson or University of South Carolina [two mostly white schools that had only integrated five years prior], I have no doubt that the governor wouldn’t order in the National Guard,” says Reid Toth, associate professor of criminal justice at University of South Carolina Upstate. “If you had a group of white students marching the streets in protest of integrating, you wouldn’t have seen the governor sending in the National Guard. It comes down to a terrible part of the history of my home state, which I love, but is still to this day battling the same sense of fear—that black people are dangerous.”

On the night of February 8, more than 100 students gathered on the South Carolina State campus College and began shouting at the armed officers stationed around them. While some students chanted “black power,” others began singing “We Shall Overcome.” When the students lit a bonfire to keep warm, patrolmen again called in a fire truck, exacerbating tensions. Then, at 10:30 p.m., patrolman David Shealy was injured when someone tossed a foreign object (what it was, whether a banister or something smaller, is contested) that hit him in the face. Minutes later, nine State Highway patrolmen opened fire on the unarmed students.

In the aftermath, many—including Governor McNair—argued the students had began shooting first, despite there being no evidence that any students had firearms. Not only were the patrolmen using much higher caliber ammunition than called for (the standard practice for dispersing riots was to use birdshot, while the officers here used the much larger double-ought buckshot), but the vast majority of students were injured in a way that indicated they were attempting to flee. All but two “had been shot in the back, side, or through the soles of their feet,” writes Reid Toth.

Although the massacre earned some national media attention, the stories disappeared quickly and many contained significant errors. (The Associated Press reported the incident included “a heavy exchange of gunfire” and never issued a correction.) “This was 1968, not 1964, and in the intervening years civil rights demonstrations had come to be seen as ‘riots’—and most whites seemed to feel that it was justified to put them down as brutally as possible,” wrote historian Dave Nolan.

That’s not to say the massacre was forgotten by African-American communities; it received widespread coverage in the Chicago Defender and other newspapers, prompted marches and vigils at the University of Chicago and other South Carolina HBCUs, and led white students at a meeting of the National Student Association to organize “white alert teams” to act as buffers between black students and law officers.

As for the nine patrolmen who opened fire, they were exonerated of all charges in a 1969 trial. The only person convicted of any charges in association with the massacre was Sellers, the activist who had been shot while on campus. He spent seven months in state penitentiary for inciting the protests and wasn’t pardoned until 25 years later.

“I was targeted because of my work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” Sellers said. “I was on the FBI’s militant radical list. The jury at my trial had two African-Americans but their only possible verdict (in order to remain in South Carolina) was ‘guilty.’ South Carolina was known for forcing uppity blacks to flee.”

In 2001, South Carolina governor Jim Hodges apologized on behalf of the state, and Orangeburg mayor Paul Miller issued another apology from the city in 2009. But calls for a formal state investigation of the incident by state legislators like Bakari Sellers (the son of Cleveland Sellers) have gone unanswered.

For Toth, the repercussions of forgetting such important aspects of the state’s history are larger than the neglect felt by the victims and their families; they become systemic issues. She points to a lack of funding for historically black colleges and universities as an indication that historical amnesia has modern consequences.

“That is part of the overall benign neglect of failing to address events, whether they’re positive or negative, that impact the black community,” Toth says. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a scholar is write research on this topic as a non-emotional objective academic, because we should know the names of the three gentlemen who were shot just as we know those in Mississippi Burning and Kent State.”

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