[News] Orangeburg - Student Masscare in South Carolina, 40 Years Later

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 26 10:41:07 EDT 2008

May 24 / 25, 2008

Student Masscare in South Carolina, 40 Years Later

Orangeburg, 1968


Forty years ago on the campus of South Carolina 
State College, which is in the city of 
Orangeburg, three students were killed and 27 
wounded when police fired into a group expressing 
outrage over the exclusion of Black people from 
the only bowling alley in town. It was night, the 
assignment editors hadn't anticipated such 
violence, there was no TV coverage. The 
Associated Press falsely reported in a story 
carried by papers around the country that there 
had been "an exchange of gunfire," as if the 
students had fired at the police. The AP never ran a correction.

Two documentaries about the Orangeburg massacre 
are due out soon. According to a New York Times 
story April 18, filmmaker Dan Klores has been 
"thinking about Orangeburg and its obscurity in 
the historical memory for decades."  Me, too.

In February '68 I was running a coffeehouse 
called The UFO on Main St. in Columbia, South 
Carolina, that was patronized by GIs from Fort 
Jackson (black and white) and some students from 
the university. One day Cleveland Sellers, an 
organizer from the Student Nonviolent 
Coordinating Committee, came to see our place and 
to discuss the possibility of doing something in 
concert -an action that would link domestic 
injustice and overseas intervention.

While he was at the UFO, Sellers got word to 
hurry back to Orangeburg because things were 
getting heavy. I drove him the 40 miles and hung 
out at a soul food café as evening fell and the 
sounds of confrontation escalated -breaking 
glass, screeching tires, people running down the 
street full tilt, shouts of "Honky" and 
"Motherfucker." The shooting hadn't started when 
I decided to head back to the UFO.  Cleveland 
Sellers would catch a bullet in the arm, get 
arrested, and be castigated as the "outside 
agitator" who had caused all the trouble. 
(Sellers grew up and went to high school in 
Denmark, SC, which is 20 miles from 
Orangeburg.)  The cops who fired on unarmed 
students would be charged with civil rights 
violations and acquitted. Only Cleve did time (for inciting to riot and riot).

Although the media coverage was generally scant 
and misleading, two reporters -Jack Bass of the 
Charlotte Observer and Jack Nelson of the Los 
Angeles Times- filed thorough, accurate stories, 
and then wrote a book, "The Orangeburg Massacre" 
(World Publishing, 1970). The introduction by 
Thomas Pettigrew discusses why what happened in 
Orangeburg got downplayed in America.  It wasn't 
the number of casualties, Pettigrew observed: 
"Recall the intense interest in the triple civil 
rights murders near Philadelphia, Mississippi, a 
few years before..."  Nor was it Governor Robert 
McNair's defense of the cops: "Was Governor 
George Wallace's explanation for the Selma bridge 
brutality in 1965 taken seriously?"

The key factor, according to Pettigrew: 
"Orangeburg followed a succession of race riots 
in major northern cities... White America was 
frightened and its mood shifted. The Bull Connors 
and Sheriff Clarks who had served as the racial 
villains in the early 1960s were being replaced 
by the Rap Browns and the Panthers." This is 
undoubtedly true. But 'White America' isn't 
monolithic, and the decision-making elites felt 
threatened not so much by Black Power rhetoric 
and inner-city looting as by the movement's 
internationalist tendencies and growing 
opposition to the war in Viet Nam. This was 
certainly true of the ruling elite in South 
Carolina, which included the head of the House 
Armed Services Committee, L. Mendel Rivers, and 
the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Strom Thurmond.

Martin Luther King was killed in April '68 after 
he had begun calling for an end to U.S. 
intervention in Viet Nam. I think something 
analogous was a factor in the Orangeburg 
massacre. There was something in the air in early 
'68 -the vague prospect of the civil rights 
movement and the peace movement 
merging.  Cleveland Sellers personified this 
possibility. He had been drafted in retaliation 
for his civil rights work and had refused 
induction.  He was under surveillance from both 
the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division 
(SLED). He asked black GIs what they thought they 
were fighting for in Viet Nam. He certainly was 
not directing the protests in Orangeburg. The 
outraged students had their own leaders, 
including several ROTC cadets. Their 
confrontation with the police escalated while Sellers was out of town.

It was SLED Chief J.P. Strom, with the unwavering 
backing of Gov. Robert McNair (considered a 
"moderate" on racial matters among southern 
governors), who led the small army that moved in 
on the South Carolina State campus. "There were 
66 patrolmen backed up by 45 National Guardsmen 
armed with M-1 rifles and fixed bayonets," 
according to Bass and Nelson. "In addition, some 
of the 25 SLED agents in the area, several 
members of Orangeburg's 28-man police force, and 
several sheriff's deputies were nearby. At the 
moment of ultimate confrontation there were about 
as many lawmen and Guardsmen as there were 
students. In addition, 61 other state patrolmen 
and 395 other National Guardsmen were on duty in Orangeburg that night."

The state patrolmen had .38 caliber pistols. Many 
had been issued shotguns loaded with deadly 
double-ought buckshot. Some had carbines. Strom's 
whole tactical approach -the number of troopers 
massed, the level of firepower, the decision to 
confront and push back the students (whose 
ultimate acting-out was to light a bonfire on 
campus)- virtually guaranteed that deadly mayhem would ensue.

Bass and Nelson provide a small piece of 
indirect, circumstantial evidence suggesting that 
the men responsible for the Orangeburg massacre 
were influenced by their obeisance to the 
military: "Strom had been a central figure in 
South Carolina's record of racial peace... In 
1964 he coolly handled an explosive situation 
that occurred when an integrated group of college 
students showed up to picket George Wallace at 
Columbia Municipal Airport."  On that occasion 
Strom ordered the pro-Wallace crowd to back off 
when they threatened to attack the protestors.

But in May ‘67 later Strom showed "less tolerance 
when antiwar demonstrators protested at the 
University of South Carolina over the granting of 
an honorary degree to General William 
Westmoreland, a South Carolina native then in 
command of United States troops in Vietnam. Strom 
ordered pickets hustled away from the campus 
chapel, where the ceremony was being held... 
Asked later why police moved against the pickets, 
who had been peaceful, Strom indicated that the 
governor wanted no antiwar demonstrations to mar the ceremony."

The Orangeburg Massacre took place February 8, 
1968. The students who lost their whole, 
promising lives were Samuel Hammond (shot in the 
back), Henry Smith (shot five times), and Delano 
Middleton (a high school student whose mother 
worked as a maid at the college, shot seven times).

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