On February 8, 1968, police opened fire on a group of civil rights protesters outside of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Three people died and many more were injured, making the event one of the deadliest in the SC Civil Rights Movement. Ashlen Renner firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Though it was the deadliest single incident of the civil-rights era in the Carolinas, the Orangeburg Massacre remains relatively obscure. It never garnered the national attention or outrage of Kent State, where National Guard troops shot and killed four students two years later. Eleven days after Kent State, two students were killed by police at Mississippi’s Jackson State College.
But Orangeburg took place on the heels of Vietnam’s Tet Offensive and the seizure of a U.S. Navy vessel by North Korea and just weeks before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“It got lost in the shuffle because so much was going on in 1968,” said William Hine, who was a first-year history professor at S.C. State that February and was there the night of shootings. “It’s still lost historically.”
Taylor Branch, a civil rights historian, said Orangeburg marked a change in the long-running drama.
“You could say that the national mood got tired of civil rights,” Branch said in an email. “Or that it hardened with intervening events such as war escalation in Vietnam, the Watts riots, the sudden rise of a black power movement, and (King’s) dramatization of northern white bigotry in Chicago.”
Nine white highway patrolmen were eventually tried for the murders but acquitted. The only person to serve time was Cleveland Sellers, a Harvard graduate and leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Wounded himself that night, he was convicted on a charge of rioting. [Charlotte Observer]