An act of racism in a small Southern town led to a peaceful protest by frustrated black college students who were denied use of the community’s only bowling alley.
A conservative Southern governor, wanting to appear tough to his white constituents, overreacted to the civil rights protest ordering a massive show of armed force. As emotions frayed and the situation veered out of control, nine white highway patrolmen opened gunfire onto a college campus—killing three black students and wounding 27 others.
All the students were unarmed and in retreat from the highway patrolmen at the time of the shooting. Yet, without warning, they were shot in their backs with deadly buckshot.
The killings occurred on February 8, 1968 — 50 years ago — on the campus of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Until the shooting, South Carolina was a southern state that had proudly celebrated a record of nonviolence during the turbulent civil rights years.
Nonviolence was equated with racial harmony in a white community with a paternalistic attitude toward its poorer black citizens. Equal rights were another thing.
To help protect its “progressive” self-image on racial issues, a web of official deceptions was created by South Carolina’s young governor—Robert McNair—and his administration to distort the facts and conceal the truth about what happened in Orangeburg.
The state claimed the deaths were the result of a two-way gun battle between students and lawmen at the college. The highway patrolmen insisted their shooting was done in self-defense in order to protect themselves from a attacking mob of students.
To bolster that claim and deflect responsibility from its own actions, the state hastily devised a media campaign to blame the riot on Cleveland Sellers, a young black activist working to organize area college students.
Time would prove none of it was true.
At first, the state’s cover-up worked. Later, upon scrutiny, it began to unravel. Then, with his legacy threatened, McNair broke nearly forty years of silence in 2006 in an attempt to put the pieces back together.
Ignoring facts proven over the years in court cases and through the first person accounts of eyewitnesses, McNair used local media and friendly historians as a tool to help members of his community lie to themselves about their own history. For the last year of his life, he deliberately fogged and distorted the story of the Orangeburg Massacre.
One man who knows the truth minced no words about what happened in 1968.
“They committed murder. Murder…that’s a harsh thing to say, but they did it,” said Ramsey Clark, U.S. Attorney General in 1968. “The police lost their self control. They just started shooting. It was a slaughter. Double ought buckshot is what you use for deer. It’s meant to kill. One guy emptied his service revolver. That takes a lot of shooting. The (students) are running away. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow! My God, there’s a murderous intent there. We are lucky more weren’t killed.”
Clark said the student deaths were caused by police criminal acts. “The provocation for the incident was an absurd, provocative display of force,” he said.
Gov. McNair responded to Orangeburg with excessive police power because that was the politically expedient thing to do in 1968, the former attorney general said.
“Fear, anger, a sense of self-righteousness to justify hating began to be seen as successful politics.” When the tactic backfired, Clark added, state officials fabricated stories that many South Carolinians believe to this day.
After a half century, the story of the Orangeburg Massacre still simmers, unresolved. It is the chilling saga of the horrors of law enforcement motivated by racism and hatred—and the inability of a Southern state to admit the truth.
The central theme is “mendacity,” the web of lies a community spins in a desperate attempt to maintain it’s self-image and dignity when confronted by its own prejudice. It’s a culture where words are constantly being redeﬁned in order that a people can more comfortably deceive themselves.
“The Orangeburg Massacre has become the litmus test for race relations in South Carolina,” said former State Rep. Bakari Sellers, son of South Carolina’s scapegoat during the shooting. “We celebrate it every year and no one seems to care or no one seems to want to understand what really happened. It’s a veil of secrecy that the state has placed over that and kept it that way for as long as possible.”
That secrecy, Bakari said, must end.