The Orangeburg Massacre

Photo by Cecil Williams

On the night of February 8, 1968, nine South Carolina Highway Patrolmen fired their weapons into a crowd of black students protesting on the front of the campus of South Carolina State College. Three students were killed and twenty-eight were injured. Virtually all of the young men were hit in the back by shotgun pellets and bullets. The shootings were the culmination of lengthy protests against the vestiges of segregation and the persistence of racial discrimination in Orangeburg, especially the “white only” policy of the All-Star Bowling Lanes.

This tragedy that became known locally and across South Carolina as the Orangeburg Massacre received little national attention at the time. Coming two weeks after the North Korean government captured the U. S. Navy vessel, The Pueblo and its crew, and only three days after the Tet offensive began in Vietnam, the Massacre was largely ignored by print and electronic journalists. Nor did subsequent investigations and trials arouse more than regional interest.

The traumatic events of 1968—President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to be a candidate, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy’s murder, the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Richard Nixon’s political resurrection in the November election—largely relegated the events in Orangeburg to obscurity. Only the publication of The Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Nelson and Jack Bass helped to keep the story alive. But FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover managed, with some success, to suppress circulation of the book because he believed it was too critical of the Bureau.

In the past five decades, historians have—with only a few exceptions—ignored Orangeburg while rarely failing to devote attention to the student uprisings at Berkeley and Columbia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. Nor is the Massacre included among the exhibits at the new Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

The events in Orangeburg did not fit neatly into the anti-war protests of the late 1960s nor do they find a place in the bloody confrontations over civil rights that occurred in Alabama and Mississippi earlier in the decade. But those events do fit into the tradition of student activism on the campuses of South Carolina State and Claflin, and in the Orangeburg community.

A dozen years before the Massacre, students at S. C. State went on strike, refusing to attend classes, in protest against both the actions of the White Citizens Council in Orangeburg and the authoritarian policies of the College President, Benner C. Turner. In February 1960, just days after the sit-ins began at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, South Carolina State and Claflin students launched their own sit-in at the local Kress lunch counter.

On March 15, 1960, students peacefully marched to challenge segregation in Orangeburg only to be met by law enforcement officers and fire hoses. Nearly 400 were arrested. Non-violent protests and demonstrations continued month after month in the early 1960s. In 1967 students went on strike in “the Cause,” staying out of class in opposition to the autocratic policies of long-time President Benner C. Turner. Turner subsequently retired.

Thus the events of February 1968 can be meaningfully comprehended only as a part of the larger and longer tradition of student activism on the Claflin and South Carolina State campuses.

For decades after the Massacre, the black and white communities in Orangeburg remained deeply divided over the meaning and memory of what happened on February 8, 1968. For most people in Orangeburg, the Massacre was a divisive issue and source on persistent racial animosity.

The in 1999 on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Massacre, more than 250 black and white residents of the Orangeburg community called for racial reconciliation in a plea published in the Times and Democrat on February 7, “Orangeburg, Let us Heal Ourselves. . .” That call had a dramatic and positive impact. In 2001 Gov. Jim Hodges expressed “deep regret” on behalf of the state at that year’s ceremony. Then Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 issued a written apology. At the 40th anniversary observance in 2008, Mayor Paul Miller apologized for the City of Orangeburg. For the 50th observance, Attorney Bakari Sellers was the featured keynote speaker in the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center.

While racial divisions have certainly not been eliminated, they have been reduced as a measure of reconciliation has taken place. The Orangeburg of 2022 is a far more harmonious community than the Orangeburg of 1968. For that we can be grateful.

Smith Hammond Middleton Justice Award Recipients

2015
Mr. Cecil Williams, Civil Rights Photographer
I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium (Ellen Zisholtz, Director)

2016
Dr. Cleveland Sellers, Civil Right Activist/Organzier
Orangeburg Chapter of NAACP (Brenda Williams, President)

2017
Dr. Jack Bass, Author of The Orangeburg Massacre
Trinity United Methodist Church, Civil Rights Landmark (Rev. Larry McCutcheon)

2018
Dr. William Hine, Historian
Mrs. Ida Mae Dash, Nurse during the Massacre
Mr. John Stroman, ’69 Survivor and Organizer of Protest
Dr. Oscar P. Butler Jr., ’56 Vice President for Student Affairs (Posthumously)

2019
Dr. Leo Twiggs, Internationally Renowned Artist
Mr. Michael Butler, Mayor of Orangeburg
Mr. Benjamin Crump, Civil Rights Attorney

2020
Dr. Barbara Jenkins, Preservationist and Historian
Dr. Tolulope Filani, Internationally Renowned Sculptor

2021
Mr. Justin Bamberg, Civil Rights Attorney

2022
SCSU Class of 1971
Ms. Gloria Pyles, Director of Title III Programs