1968 was one of the most eventful years in American history—the Vietnam War raged. Riots of Black rage tore up inner cities. Chicago Police themselves rioted, beating and gassing demonstrators at the Democratic Party Convention. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon was elected President. Apollo astronauts first orbited the Moon.
Maybe that explains how the first ever shooting of students on campus by authorities on February 8, 1968 gets overlooked. But how do you explain the fact that even then, it barely caused a ripple in the national consciousness?
Students at historically Black South Carolina State College (SCSC) at Orangeburg just wanted to bowl. Although certainly not untouched by more than a decade of Civil Rights turmoil in the South, students there, typically the first in their families to go to college, usually concentrated on their studies. It was certainly hotbed of radicalism.
Like many small towns, recreational opportunities were limited. Just outside the University sat the town’s only bowling alley All Star Bowling Lanes on US 301 owned by Harry K. Floyd. It had a firm Whites Only policy. On February 6 a large group of students attempted to enter the bowling alley. They were refused admission. Scuffling broke out and local police were called. In the resultant melee nine students and one officer were injured. Two female students were restrained by one officer while being beaten by another. The campus erupted in rage.
|Governor Robert E. Mcnair mobilized the National Guard and sent a large contingent of State Police.|
Rowdy demonstrations and arrests occurred the next evening. Students announced that they would keep up street actions. Local officials called for help. Governor Robert E. McNair mobilized a National Guard unit and dispatched large numbers of State Police to Orangeburg.
On the night of February 8, students started a large bonfire in the street near the bowling alley. Bottles and rocks were thrown at massing authorities. There were claims that at least one Molotov cocktail was thrown. The Fire Department was called to douse the bonfire and the State Police advanced “in protection” of firefighters. Students fell back to campus exchanging jeers and insults with police and throwing objects at them. The crowd of 200-300 students stopped just inside the entrance of the school.
One police officer suffered minor injuries to the face when struck by a piece of banister railing. Police later said that they came under fire from snipers. Some witnesses recall two or three popping sounds. Much later it was determined that an Orangeburg city policeman fired three warning shots into the air with his carbine.
Unnerved and enraged the State Police unleashed multiple volleys at the students at a range of about 20 yards. The Police were armed with sawed-off riot shot guns. Ordinarily these weapons are supposed to be loaded with light bird shot for non-lethal crowd control. The pump action shot guns instead were loaded with heavy buck shot, nine pellets to a cartridge and designed to kill.
|Orangebur dead surrounded by State Police.|
In moments three young men lay dead. At least 26 others were shot, most in the back while fleeing. Many had multiple wounds from the devastating buck shot. Forty years later, another man showed a scar and said he was shot in the stomach that night but was afraid to seek treatment. After the shooting stopped, two students were beaten, one for questioning the Police. Twenty-seven year old Louise Kelly Cawley was beaten and sprayed in the face with Mace while trying to bring the wounded to medical treatment. A week later she suffered a miscarriage as a result of her injuries.
|Orangeburg victims--Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond, and Delano Middleton.|
The dead were SCSC students Samuel Hammond, 18, Henry Smith, 19 and Wilkinson High School senior Delano Middleton, 17.
That night the Associated Press (AP) reported the shootings as a “heavy exchange of gunfire” with authorities. It never corrected this entirely erroneous report.
The next morning Governor McNair told reporters it was “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina.” He fretted that the state’s, “reputation for racial harmony had been blemished.” He was also a fount of misinformation not only backing claims that the police were fired on, but claiming that the shooting occurred off campus as students were rampaging. He also blamed “Black Power advocates” for the unrest. National news outlets did little to counter this biased account, which became widely accepted.
The Justice Department launched an investigation. Eight of 66 State Police on the scene admitted firing their riot guns, most of them multiple times. A ninth officer emptied the six bullets from his .38 service revolver at fleeing students. They were indicted for “imposing summary punishment without due process of law.” The officers were: Patrol Lieutenant Jesse Alfred Spell, 45, Sgt. Henry Morrell Addy, 37, Sgt. Sidney C. Taylor, 43, Corporal Joseph Howard Lanier, 32, Corporal Norwood F. Bellamy, 50, Patrolman First Class John William Brown, 31, Patrolman First Class Colie Merle Metts, 36, Patrolman Allen Jerome Russell, 24, and Patrolman Edward H. Moore, 30. All were white. An Orangeburg city police officer, later promoted to Chief, also discharged his shot gun but was never charged. Later another State Police officer, Patrolman Robert Sanders, admitted shooting students but was never charged.
It took less than two hours for a jury to acquit all of the officers despite the fact that evidence presented at the trial was damming. No guns were ever found among the victims nor did any eye witnesses report seeing any or hearing any gunfire from the crowd.
Two and a half years after the shooting, one man was finally convicted—Cleveland L. Sellers, Jr. He was a young South Carolinian who was National Program Director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He happened to be in Orangeburg on February 6. He had been present at the first disturbance outside of the bowling alley and had been injured. He was not there in his capacity with SNCC, the organization never had a campaign at the school, and he was not present or involved with events over the next two days. None the less, state authorities, hoping to shore up their weak case for “outside agitators,” charged Sellers with multiple counts, including conspiracy and incitement to riot. This was too much for even a local trial judge, who threw out the felony counts with scathing remarks. But he did find Sellers guilty of simple riot. Sellers spent 7 months in state prison. In 1998 Sellers published a memoir of his ordeal, Orangeburg Massacre: Dealing Honestly with Tragedy and Distortion.
Jack Bass’s comprehensive 1970 account, The Orangeburg Massacre was, despite glowing early reviews, effectively squelched in distribution by pressure from Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) chief J. Edgar Hoover, who objected to accounts of FBI agents attempting to cover up for the State Police. The book was finally re-issued and became widely available by Mercer University Press in 1984.
Bass continued as an historian to campaign for wider awareness of the buried incident.
In 2004 South Carolina Governor Mark Stafford finally issued a public statement that, “I think it’s appropriate to tell the African-American community in South Carolina that we don’t just regret what happened in Orangeburg 35 years ago—we apologize for it.”
|The Orangeburg Massacre memoria on the grounds of South Carolina State University today.|
The school is now known as South Carolina State University. Its gymnasium is now named in memory of the three men killed. There is a monument on campus in their honor and the site of the shooting is been marked. The school conducts annual memorial commemorations and promotes ongoing academic investigation of the event.
And, oh yeah, the All Star Bowling Lanes was renamed the All-Star Triangle Bowl. The Floyd family still owns and operates the business. It has been integrated for many years.