The New South Turns Old South
It was early in 1968, my junior year at the University of South Carolina, when I began getting my journalistic feet wet in a job working on the night news desk at WIS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbia. I did everything—from reporting, to writing scripts to shooting and processing the reels of black and white 16mm news film. Working alone, I'd quickly comb my hair, turn on the camera and run around in front to perform the on-air "stand-upper." I was, in local TV parlance, a "one-man band."
Over several nights in early February, I used a newsroom receiver to monitor police radio communications concerning an escalating series of disturbances in the nearby town of Orangeburg. A transmission during the night of February 8 brought news that in the latest clash some black students from South Carolina State College had been killed and many more were wounded. From the radio accounts, it sounded as if the students had fired weapons at a group of highway patrolmen, and that the patrolmen, all white, had returned fire in self-defense. One message came through the radio static loud and clear: blame for the deaths was clearly being placed on the students and what the police called "outside agitators."
At nineteen, and still a very novice reporter, I had yet to learn to think and act independently within the crucible of Southern culture in which I swam. My awareness of the shooting, like most of those around me at the time, was filtered through the prejudiced accounts of South Carolina's local political establishment and the ultraconservative print and broadcast media that supported it. Yet even from the earliest official explanations of what happened in Orangeburg, there was skepticism. It took a leap of faith to believe the state's story, but most white Southerners did just that. For me, the seed of doubt existed from day one, but it remained dormant for twenty years.
Once I began to seriously focus on the event, I came to understand its larger meaning and the startling fact that no resolution had come. What apparently began as a racially inspired shooting quickly evolved into a complex cover-up by senior officials of the state of South Carolina. At first, the cover-up worked. Later, it unraveled. As the 40th anniversary of the shooting came and went, the story of the Orangeburg massacre continued to simmer unresolved in a twilight zone of blame and denial.
The tragedy at Orangeburg has remained one of the least known and most misunderstood events of the civil rights era. On a basic level, Orangeburg is a chilling history lesson on the horrors of law enforcement motivated by racism and hatred. Over time, it evolved into a remarkable character study of white leadership in what was once proudly hailed as the "New South." As a window to modern Southern culture, the saga of the massacre is drenched in themes and values that have motivated South Carolinians since the Civil War.
The events leading up to the 1968 shooting began when an act of racism in a small college town resulted in peaceful protests by frustrated black students. The governor, elected as a racial "moderate," responded with a vast show of armed force. Each side misunderstood the other, escalating the conflict. Then, as emotions peaked, nine white highway patrolmen opened fire on the students. In less than ten seconds, the campus became the scene of a bloodbath.
This scenario played out over four days. On the final day, three students were killed and twenty-seven others wounded when the lawmen sprayed buckshot—the deadly oversize shotgun pellets used to hunt big game—onto the campus. Most of the students, in retreat at the time, were shot from the rear—some in the back, others in the soles of their feet. None carried weapons.
The killings occurred in a Southern state whose white leaders expressed pride in its lack of violence during the civil rights era. In an attempt to preserve a carefully cultivated image of racial harmony, a web of official deceptions was created 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. The highway patrolmen insisted their shooting was an act of self-defense—to protect themselves from an 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.
The public official who was ultimately responsible for the student deaths refused to explain the series of events that spiraled out of control during his watch in the winter of 1968. At the age of 83, former governor Robert McNair—a proud and stubborn man of Scotch-Irish ancestry—ended years of silence and took "responsibility" for the shootings that occurred on his watch. However, simultaneously, through the release of his official papers and in later news media interviews, McNair continued to disseminate the same misinformation issued by the state only hours after the shooting. An analysis of his repeated statements and actions showed that McNair remained in denial over his actions during the student protests. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, McNair died on November 17, 2007, taking the secrets of Orangeburg to his grave.
For the promising young leader who was lauded for his progressive views on racial issues, the future was not supposed to turn out that way. Despite a determined struggle against civil rights reform, rapid change was bombarding the old aristocratic social order. Racial barriers were finally falling.
Although its elected officials had done all they could to resist the court-ordered desegregation of public institutions during the 1950s and '60s, South Carolina had ultimately lost the battle to remain a segregated society. Public support for the Ku Klux Klan dwindled. The harsh race-baiting politics of Strom Thurmond and Olin D. Johnston in the 1950 Senate campaign were largely abandoned in favor of more moderate themes that included improved education and economic development.
Thurmond, the fiery old segregationist, radically changed his racial colors over the years to become an entrenched political survivor. Unlike his contemporary, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who repented for his racial sins before his death, Thurmond offered no apologies and flatly denied until his death that he'd ever engaged in racist politics at any time during his career.
A new era of Southern politics was well underway in 1965 when forty-four-year-old Lieutenant Governor Robert McNair ascended to the governorship after the incumbent, Donald Russell, resigned to appoint himself to the United States Senate seat left vacant by the death of Olin D. Johnston. McNair, a small-town lawyer and former legislative leader from the Hell Hole Swamp section of Berkeley County, came to office with a reputation as a congenial consensus builder.
Born December 14, 1923, South Carolina's future governor grew up on his family farm in one of the poorest areas of the state's low country. Most of McNair's neighbors were black, though very few minority residents were registered to vote and none held positions of power in the community. McNair liked to say that because he grew up with black people, he knew all about them and their needs.
Yet, as the son of a white farmer and merchant in the heartland of the state's white ruling-class aristocracy, McNair was raised in a time of complete segregation of the races. As a young man he learned that good manners and the preservation of outward appearances are vitally important to proper Southern society. Polite South Carolinians cared for their Negro neighbors—helping them during times of sickness and trouble. The knee-jerk racism that plagued Mississippi and Alabama was frowned upon in South Carolina. Yes, the races might be segregated here, but it was the duty of the privileged white ruling class to be the caretakers of their black neighbors—that is, as long as those neighbors remained in their place.
McNair addressed those days in an oral history released to the public on July 13, 2006: "I grew up in the country on a big farm and the blacks worked on the farm and were almost like family. They stayed in their place, but at the same time there was a warm, friendly relationship."
To those weary of the old fire-breathing racial demagogues, the youthful McNair's non-threatening, accommodating style was a genuine breath of fresh air. After making it clear that he would embrace and expand the racially moderate policies of Ernest F. Hollings and Donald Russell, the governors who preceded him, McNair was quickly tagged by the media a progressive leader of the "New South." In no time, he became one of the most visible new faces in the national Democratic Party.
Upon taking office, McNair promised the state legislature that he would "communicate, cooperate, and coordinate" with members. He called a joint meeting of the heads of all state agencies and ordered them to put aside interagency rivalries and begin working together. He courted black voters and maintained good relations with the leaders of the state NAACP. His openness and accessibility earned rave reviews in the early days of his administration.
The national reputation of South Carolina was important to the new governor. To maintain his progressive image, McNair wanted none of the racial strife that had engulfed Mississippi and Alabama during the civil rights protests of the era. He made it a point of personal pride that South Carolina had avoided the wrenching street violence familiar in a growing number of states. Civil disturbances were bad form and would never be tolerated in his state, McNair insisted.
As a young member of the state legislature during the 1950s, McNair—like his white colleagues—had little interest in advocating equality for black citizens. He gained a reputation as a progressive not because he was an activist, but because he wasn't a rabid segregationist in a state full of them. McNair's pragmatic side saw that the South was eventually going to lose the battle to maintain segregation. For a politician barely thirty years old, it was best to look ahead and define the issues important to the future of the South. By the time he assumed the governorship, McNair had defined his mission: to push South Carolina from its rural past to an industrial future. This would be accomplished by accelerating economic growth. Racial stability—along with an improved educational system—were important lures that would attract outside business interests to the state, he reasoned.
McNair's political focus on economic growth was in direct collision with the political currents of the times. Protests against the Vietnam War and race riots in major Northern cities were tearing down the most durable governmental facades. The appearance of social stability that McNair so valued was rapidly evaporating in the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. The once accommodating young governor, who had assumed the top office two years earlier, began a move to the political right.
During his 1967 inaugural address, McNair offered a hint of this change and a clue to his uncharacteristic actions a year later during the tense days of hostility in Orangeburg. As Alabama's George Wallace and his wife, Lurleen, listened from a few feet away, McNair signaled his future: "I intend to use all the authority and influence at my command to see that the good name of our state is not tarnished."
The New South's conciliator was turning into an old South law and order hardliner.
"Governor, I'm Afraid Something Terrible Has Happened"
It was the summer of 1968, a few months after the Orangeburg killings, and I was among a handful of reporters waiting in Robert McNair's suite at the Palmer House in Chicago for the governor to receive an important phone call. Outside, in the streets, all hell was breaking loose in a police riot. Demonstrators repeatedly chanted "the whole world is watching" as the 1968 Democratic National Convention was transformed into a globally televised antiwar protest.
Inside, when the expected phone call finally came, Gov. McNair was informed that it was Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, not he, that Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey had chosen as his running mate. McNair, who had been publicly touted as a front runner for the vice presidential nomination, took the news with grace, as always. But, as we would soon learn, it was the beginning of the end for what had been a charmed political career. The killings at Orangeburg had already taken a political toll on the young governor.
The setting was South Carolina State College (now University), one of two small black colleges located in Orangeburg, a mostly white, ultra-conservative community of 20,000 located about forty miles southeast of Columbia. Although S.C. State College and nearby Claflin University—with a combined enrollment of about 2,300 students—insured a substantial well-educated black population in the town, a social wall continued to divide the races. In 1968, white Orangeburg was a hotbed of segregationist radicalism—a center for organizations resisting the social change sweeping the South.
The S.C. State campus, made up of students from mostly poor and middle class black families, was a cultural world apart from the white neighborhoods surrounding it. The students had a rich legacy of civil rights activism, and, in 1968, there remained an undercurrent of tension over the second-class treatment the college was receiving from the state government.
However, the conflict that led to the Orangeburg massacre began at a bowling alley. John Stroman, a black S.C. State senior from Savannah, Georgia, had a passion for bowling. All Star Bowling Lanes, the only bowling facility within forty miles of the campus, refused to admit black patrons. Its owner, Harry Floyd, believed that the presence of black bowlers would hurt his business. His stubborn refusal to serve black customers—including students from the local colleges—elevated the bowling establishment to a highly visible symbol of the remaining segregation in Orangeburg. A group of students, organized by Stroman, decided to stage a protest.
On Monday, February 5, 1968, Stroman led the student activists from his campus to All Star Bowling Lanes. About forty young protesters entered the facility before Harry Floyd was able to bolt the door. "Some of the fellas went to the counter," Stroman recalled. "Every time they touched something, like a napkin holder, the whites would throw it in the trash. When we put money in the jukebox to play a record, [Floyd] unplugged it and gave us our money back."
When the students refused to leave, Floyd called the police and demanded they be arrested for trespassing. Orangeburg police chief Roger Poston, convinced that the situation was explosive, ordered the bowling alley closed for the night. The students returned peaceably to campus, vowing to return.
Harry Floyd was able to deny service to black citizens because of a legal ambiguity in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Though the legislation contained a section on public accommodations, it covered only businesses engaged in interstate commerce. It was not yet clear whether the law applied to bowling establishments. A complaint targeting Floyd's refusal to serve blacks had reached the Justice Department for a determination of whether the U.S. government should take the issue to federal court. At the time of Stroman's demonstration, however, the government had not yet decided to pursue the case, leaving Floyd temporarily free to operate a segregated business.
The following night Stroman and his fellow students returned to All Star Bowling Lanes for a second protest. This time, however, they found the doors shut and locked. Instead of encountering Harry Floyd, the young protesters were met in the front parking lot by a group of heavily armed law enforcement officers, some carrying three-foot-long wooden riot batons.
The centerpiece in this menacing show of force was South Carolina's top law enforcement officer, J. P. "Pete" Strom, a crusty, heavy-set, no nonsense authoritarian. Often compared to legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, both for his bulldog appearance and autocratic reputation, Strom was known as "Mr. Law Enforcement."
Usually dressed in ill-fitting, baggy suits and displaying a crossed-pistols tie clasp, Strom was prone to skip the niceties and carry out his own brand of old South law enforcement. Although the state's white leaders praised him for showing what they considered restraint in some civil rights demonstrations, most blacks viewed Strom as a dangerous and arbitrary symbol of white police power. Young whites, especially those protesting the war in Vietnam, shared an equal disdain for the authoritarian Strom.
Strom's staunchly right-wing bias was demonstrated during a protest over the controversial awarding of an honorary degree to General William C. Westmoreland by the University of South Carolina on June 3, 1967, just eight months prior to the Orangeburg killings. Then commander of American troops in Vietnam, Westmoreland was a highly divisive figure in a volatile time. After a group of peaceful antiwar protesters were threatened by pro-Westmoreland supporters at the campus ceremony, Strom summarily ordered that the protesters—not Westmoreland's supporters—be removed by police from the area where the general was to receive his degree. Asked why he moved against the peaceful antiwar activists rather than those who had caused the trouble, Strom indicated that Gov. McNair didn't want antiwar demonstrations to mar the ceremony honoring the general.
McNair, the fourth governor to reappoint the politically powerful Strom to the position of top cop, dispatched him to Orangeburg to confront the students challenging Harry Floyd's segregation policy. McNair and Strom were cut from the same cloth, and the governor placed his complete trust in the veteran lawman. Unfortunately for the students at Orangeburg, when it came to protest, the patience of both men had worn razor thin. By 1968, McNair and Strom had been hardened by television images of race riots that began at Watts in Los Angeles and moved to Boston, San Francisco, Newark, and Detroit. In a news interview preceding Orangeburg, McNair commented that officials in Detroit had "waited too late to call in force" to squelch the riots that left forty-three dead and caused $50 million in property damage. Riots would not be allowed to occur in South Carolina, the governor insisted.
Upon their return to All Star Bowling Lanes, the students got a low-key reception from Strom and Orangeburg police chief Poston. The two officers calmly explained to Stroman that under the current law Floyd had the right to file trespass charges against his group if they entered the bowling alley. If that happened, those inside would be arrested.
That understood, the doors were unlocked, giving the students the option to enter. About thirty black men and women then walked through the door. They quietly waited a few minutes before Floyd asked them to leave. At that point, Strom suggested to Stroman there was no need that everyone in his group be arrested; he could make his case just as strongly in court with no more than one arrest. Responding to the suggestion, Stroman told the female students to leave and advised others to exit the premises if they did not want to be arrested. Fifteen students remained.
The arrests did not sit well with the gathering crowd outside in the parking lot. Jeering and shouting escalated into anger. Another student was arrested for cursing a policeman. As word of the arrests reached campus, several hundred additional students headed to the bowling alley. Along the way, some picked up loose bricks and scraps of wood from a demolished building.
Fearful of a violent confrontation, Strom and Poston did an about-face and decided against holding the fifteen students that had been arrested. Each was immediately released from the town jail into the custody of S.C. State's dean with an understanding that they return to the parking lot and attempt to convince their angry classmates to go back to the campus.
Just as Stroman and the others moved to calm the crowd, the Orangeburg police department made a serious mistake. Chief Poston, who had been in Orangeburg only three years, had—as a precaution—ordered a fire truck sent to the shopping center. What Poston failed to realize was that a previous generation of black students had been sprayed with fire hoses on a cold night during a sit-in demonstration in Orangeburg in 1960. The fire truck had become a unique symbol of police oppression to blacks in the Southern town. Upon spotting the red truck, the mood of the crowd took an angry swing. The night was bitter cold and the students thought the high-pressure water hose was about to be turned on them.
As most of the crowd moved toward the fire truck, a few students tried to enter the bowling alley. When police responded, a student was pushed into a glass window, causing it to shatter. Within moments, all hell broke loose. Police, joined by highway patrolmen, started wildly swinging their wooden clubs at the protesters. Several women were viciously knocked to the ground by the lawmen. A female student, held by two policemen, was brutally beaten by a third. As John Stroman tried to help a fellow student being struck by two patrolmen, he was sprayed in the face with a chemical and thrown off his feet by a blow to his stomach. As the police violence escalated in the parking lot, white bowlers—oblivious to the chaos outside—calmly continued their play without interruption.
Bloodied students, helped by classmates, straggled into the college infirmary. Others, infuriated by the police assault, threw bricks and rocks at white-owned businesses in Orangeburg as they returned to campus. Forty miles away at the state capitol, Robert McNair sat stunned in the his office as Pete Strom reported a vicious attack on the police by the students.
A year earlier, the hands-on McNair would probably have traveled to Orangeburg to address the problem in person. A visit by the governor to the bowling alley might have intimidated owner Harry Floyd enough to change his mind. At the very least, it would have demonstrated to the students that the state's chief executive was on their side in ending a last ditch effort to preserve segregation. This time, however, McNair resisted personal negotiation. Instead, he upped the state's show of force by sending 250 National Guardsmen and additional highway patrolmen to Orangeburg. It would be the biggest mistake of his political career.
By the morning of Wednesday, February 7, the conflict had moved beyond a simple protest over a segregated bowling alley to the issue of police brutality. The unwarranted beating of black college students by an all-white police force was being misrepresented by law enforcement officials as a riot caused entirely by the students. Matters were made worse by insensitive white city officials, who refused to grant the students a parade permit and responded unconvincingly to their grievances. The only governmental response was force and more force. As hundreds of armed white men moved into Orangeburg, the area's segregationist congressman, Albert Watson, added another log to the growing racial fire.
"What is occurring in Orangeburg at this moment is just another step in an overall plan to disrupt this entire nation," Watson said in a statement to the news media. "Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, on which I serve as a member, have proved without a shadow of a doubt that these riots are planned long in advance by the so-called civil rights leaders and groups which are bent on destroying the democratic process."
Watson commended law enforcement officials in Orangeburg for their "magnificent efforts in putting down this threat of anarchy." They acted "swiftly, positively, and courageously in putting down this riot. Certainly the entire nation can look to the example set by these gentlemen in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and gain insight into the proper way to curb a serious civil disturbance."
Within hours of the beatings, a blame game began over who was responsible for blemishing the state's public image for racial peace and stability. An "outside agitator" stirred up the students, Gov. McNair and law enforcement officials told the media in an effort to portray the police beatings as a reaction to a violent riot instigated by the students.
The alleged culprit was Cleveland Sellers, age twenty-two, a bright, driven young native of the town of Denmark, located only twenty miles from Orangeburg. Sellers was not a typical black South Carolinian. He had been a Freedom Fighter in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project to register African American voters. As a dedicated teenage activist, he was introduced to Mississippi through a frightening, high profile assignment to help investigate the disappearance of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Under the cover of darkness, Sellers, with a partner, had risked his life to unsuccessfully search the backwoods, swamps, and hillsides of Philadelphia, Mississippi for his murdered coworkers.
Having quickly matured into an effective civil rights organizer, Sellers became national program director of the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization's advocacy of black self-awareness and pride—labeled the "black power" movement by the national news media in the 1960s—put fear in the hearts of many white South Carolinians who believed they were the target of some sort of terrorist organization. Sellers, with an exotic goatee and voluminous Afro, became the perfect embodiment of their fear.
The truth is Cleveland Sellers had no interest in John Stroman's bowling alley protest. He had declined Stroman's invitation to participate and was out of town the first night the students visited All Star Bowling Lanes. He showed up the second night only after the arrests had drawn a crowd. Sellers, who was also a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, had come to Orangeburg to promote a campus organization, the Black Awareness Coordinating Committee (BACC). But the exact nature of his current mission didn't matter to the white community—reputation alone kept Cleveland Sellers under constant surveillance while in South Carolina. It also didn't matter that he was only a casual observer of the bowling alley protest. Sellers' very presence was enough for Pete Strom and his men to identify their scapegoat.
Daybreak, Thursday, February 8, came after an uneasy night of scattered protests. Because Orangeburg was "very tense and dangerous," S.C. State's acting president, Maceo Nance, urged students to remain on campus. "We again impress upon you that your personal safety is in jeopardy," Nance said.
In Columbia, Gov. McNair again escalated the forces in Orangeburg. He also appealed to the White House to pressure the Justice Department to take legal action against Harry Floyd for his refusal to admit black patrons at the bowling alley. New requests for the governor to visit with the students in Orangeburg were refused.
As the day progressed, Orangeburg was transformed into an occupied town. Not since Gen. Sherman's march had the city seen such a concentration of armed might. Rumors swept the white community that black militants planned to burn the city to the ground. The National Guard was ordered to protect utilities from attack. Gov. McNair told the press, "We want to avoid property damage and injury to anybody."
Thursday afternoon, the commander of the state highway patrol, Col. Frank Thompson, told his men to use firearms only as a last resort if their lives were in danger. That decision, he implied, was left to each individual patrolman. Thompson then returned to Columbia for the night.
As dusk turned into a near-freezing darkness, a paralyzing tension seized the town. Rumors of apocalyptic proportions spread from neighbor to neighbor. Frightened store owners, skeptical of any unknown customer, kept loaded shotguns at reach under their counters. The silent night was periodically jarred as false fire alarms sent sirens screaming through the streets. As the evening wore on, there were isolated disturbances, each of which ended as quickly as it began.
At nearby Claflin, a group of students hurled rocks and other objects toward policemen. There were police reports of sporadic sniper fire on or near the Claflin campus and an attempt to burn down a warehouse used by law enforcement. When a reporter heard an explosive noise, he was told that a patrolman had fired a shotgun into the air as a warning. Even with the students from both colleges off the streets and secure on their respective campuses, the white community remained on pins and needles—waiting for some anticipated cataclysm.
With the quiet grounds of S.C. State surrounded by ranks of armed white men, Henry Smith, a gutsy eighteen-year-old sophomore committed to civil rights causes, led a restless group of fellow students to a short side street at the southwest corner of the campus. There, at about 9:30 p.m., they built a bonfire using wood and scraps picked up from a nearby construction site. The mood of the students—giddy and gleeful—was in sharp contrast to the grim lawmen standing nearby. As the fire blazed, the flames eventually drew a crowd of about two hundred from the nearby dorms. Warming themselves by the roaring flames, the young people sang traditional civil rights songs, including We Shall Overcome and We Shall Not Be Moved. For the students, it was a spontaneous release from an extremely tense day. It was also a small act of defiance to show they would not be intimidated by the absurd show of force focused on their campus.
About forty feet from the bonfire, a vacant wooden house stood in a state of neglect. Its falling window shutters, banister railings, and rotted loose boards provided the students a rich source of fuel for their bonfire. A joyous Henry Smith, taunting the patrolmen, ripped down several wooden traffic signposts and tossed them into the fire. A couple of flaming objects were thrown toward the vacant house, though they fizzled out without causing any damage. A flaming signpost ignited a patch of dry grass but did not spread.
Pete Strom, the officer in charge, finally lost patience with Smith and the other students. He summoned a fire truck to douse their bonfire. At 10:30 p.m., the truck, with siren blaring, arrived at the edge of the campus. Highway patrolmen, sixty-six in all, were ordered to protect the firemen as they approached the bonfire. National Guardsmen secured other parts of the area. As the firemen and their patrol guard approached the bonfire, the students moved back toward the dorms, cursing along the way. Several rocks and bottles were thrown toward the firemen from the campus.
While the firemen extinguished the bonfire, two highway patrolmen moved alongside the nearby vacant house that had supplied the firewood. Suddenly, without warning, a heavy white banister came hurtling out of nowhere, hitting one of the patrolmen, David Shealy, in the face. Bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth, Shealy appeared to be seriously wounded. His ghastly appearance spawned confusion and panic among his fellow patrolmen. Rumor quickly spread through the patrol ranks that Shealy had been shot. That's all the tense highway patrolmen needed to hear.
Three patrolmen shouldered their weapons, targeting an embankment near the edge of the campus where most of the students were slowly returning from the site of the bonfire to their dormitories about 400 feet away. Unaware of Shealy's injury and the escalated tension it had caused, some students were embarrassed by their original hasty retreat and began to turn back. "Hey man, they can't do nothing to us on our own campus," one shouted as he reversed direction and moved again toward the armed patrolmen.
Many of the 150 college students on the embankment had never been in a civil rights demonstration before. Realizing they couldn't match the firepower of the police, the students used the best weapon they had—their voices. Ambling back down the hill, some shouted "motherfucker" and "honkies" at the patrolmen below. Others shouted, "Your mama's a whore! Your mama's a whore!"
To the highway patrolmen, the students appeared as ghostly silhouettes set against the darkened campus—the outlines of their bodies dimly illuminated from nearby street lights and the headlamps of police cars. Unbeknownst to the students, their figures were carefully framed through the sights of an arsenal of shotguns, pistols and carbines. When they neared the patrolmen, a shot rang out. Then an intense barrage of gunfire, mostly in the form of deadly buckshot, erupted from the gunmen.
The massacre at Orangeburg lasted about nine seconds. One wounded student described it as like being caught in a wave of falling soldiers, just as in a scene from a war movie. When the shooting ended, three students lay mortally wounded and another twenty-seven had injuries. All but two were shot from the rear or the side as they tried to flee.
Pete Strom, wearing a metal combat helmet, summoned Robert McNair on a direct radio hot line. "Governor," he said, "I'm afraid something terrible has happened."
Murder and Denial
"They committed murder. Murder…that's a harsh thing to say, but they did it. 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."
Ramsey Clark, Attorney General of the United States in 1968, minced no words when he described what happened in Orangeburg. My journey for answers about the shooting had taken me to his East 12th Street law office in lower Manhattan. I had simply picked up the phone, called, and asked whether he would be willing to answer some questions about the Orangeburg massacre. To my surprise, he consented. Apparently, few others had bothered to ask. I found myself in the presence of one of the few living men in a position to grasp the real story of Orangeburg, and—of equal importance—one who was willing to speak candidly about what he knew.
As the interview began, Clark seemed tentative and somber. He strained to recall the details of the case as he sat at his cluttered wooden desk in a modest office that gave no clue to his earlier years as head of Lyndon Johnson's Justice Department. My initial hopes began to fade. I thought to myself, Orangeburg was one of the hundreds of civil rights cases he had handled in the 1960s. Maybe the details had faded over the decades. But then, as his memory kicked in, Ramsey Clark became increasingly agitated—his outrage gradually returning as he remembered the behavior of South Carolina's officials in the aftermath of the shooting.
The student deaths at Orangeburg were caused by "police criminal acts," he declared, warming quickly to the subject. "The provocation for the incident was an absurd, provocative display of force." He said South Carolina's governor, Robert McNair, responded to Orangeburg with excessive police power because that was the politically expedient thing to do in 1968.
"Fear, anger, a sense of self-righteousness to justify hating began to be seen as successful politics." When the tactic backfired, Clark told me, state officials fabricated stories that many South Carolinians believe to this day. "Part of the reason they put out these stories was shock. We've got these dead bodies on our hands. We can't take this rap."
In the surreal aftermath of the barrage of gunfire, the only certainties were death and injury. Samuel Hammond, age eighteen, a football player, was fatally shot in the back. Delano Middleton, a seventeen-year-old Orangeburg high school student whose mother worked as a maid at the college, died from multiple gunshot wounds. Henry Smith, the exuberant young organizer of the bonfire gathering, was hit from several directions as he was spun around by the intense force of the fusillade. As Smith lay dying on the ground, several patrolmen prodded him with riot sticks, while another struck him with the butt of his gun.
Cleveland Sellers, who had joined the rear of the student procession after visiting a nearby dormitory, was shot in the armpit as he tried to help some screaming students escape. Sellers had come to the campus for his own safety after going home to find the turret of a military battle tank pointed directly at his small wooden frame house.
Once again, unhurt students helped the injured get to the campus infirmary. Jordan Simmons, a senior who had been shot in the neck while walking across the campus, hobbled on his own to the infirmary after witnessing the police drag injured students into the darkness. "It was chaos. People were dazed…lying around everywhere in pain. The infirmary had blood all over the floor," Simmons recalled.
Ambulances were prevented from entering the campus. A married and pregnant senior used her car to shuttle the wounded from the infirmary to a nearby Orangeburg hospital. She was stopped by three policemen who beat her and sprayed a chemical in her face. A week later, she suffered a miscarriage. Simmons was lucky to be spotted in the infirmary by his track coach, who drove him to the emergency room.
At the local hospital, a policeman asked, "Who's laughing now?" as he walked smirking past a row of bleeding students in the emergency room. Another officer, when questioned by a hospital employee about what had happened, blurted, "A couple of niggers got stung with birdshot."
As he entered the hospital, the wounded Jordan Simmons remembers hearing a hospital worker use racial epithets as he slowly moved past white men in bibbed overalls wearing badges. "I didn't want to be there," Simmons remembered. "My whole life passed before me. I was alone in that hospital."
His mother, Gladys, didn't want him in that hospital either. Hospital workers, after learning she was the mother of an S.C. State student, hung up the telephone twice when she called to inquire about her son's condition. She got through only after a helpful telephone company operator intervened.
Told that her son had a fifty-fifty chance of survival, she drove to Orangeburg from her home in Summerville, a town near Charleston. "I was determined if he should die that he have no animosity against his perpetrators," she said. "I didn't want him to die with malice in his heart."
After enduring rude medical personnel and hearing news reports of police beatings upon returning home that night, Mrs. Simmons-Suddeth—whose brother had died in a South Carolina jail years earlier—felt her son was in danger from more than just his gunshot wound. The next day she removed him from the racially hostile environment of the Orangeburg hospital and drove him to Charleston, where he could be under the care of a family physician.
"I was afraid of what they might do. I knew of many cases where they took people out of jail and lynched them. I thought they might do something terrible to Jordan," she said. "It was very barbaric for them to shoot into a bunch of children with buckshot. Then they lied about it. If you are black, whatever they say is true. Nobody had any civil rights to fight whatever they said."
After being treated for his wound at the hospital, Cleveland Sellers was arrested. As he was led away by the county sheriff, Sellers—concerned for his own safety—told every student he passed, "Y'all see I'm going with the sheriff. The sheriff's got me." Trained in such survival techniques from his days of civil rights demonstrations in Mississippi, Sellers recalled that his verbal proclamations to witnesses caught the attention of the sheriff and believed they may have kept him alive in the turbulent hours ahead.
The night of February 8 became a "fantasy" born of fear and confusion, Sellers told me in an interview for this book at his childhood home in Demark. Once in custody, he watched a shaken Pete Strom and his colleagues hastily devise a plan to deal with all the chaos swirling around them. "Everyone thought they were in charge, but no one was really in charge. They were real disorganized. It was like watching a slapstick comedy."
Eventually, the white lawmen threw the book at Sellers, charging him with everything they could think of. The final list included arson, inciting a riot, assault and battery with intent to kill, destruction of personal property, damaging real property, housebreaking, and grand larceny. His bond was set at $50,000, a staggering amount for the time. When informed of the charges and the bond amount, Sellers said all he could do was laugh.
As he was paraded in front of television cameras as a police trophy, Sellers smiled. "The smile is the irony of that picture," Sellers recalled. "I could hardly believe what was happening to me. Even though I knew these people were fully capable of all this, it just didn't make any sense."
The night ahead would become even more surreal. The highway patrol closed the entire forty-mile section of Interstate Highway 26 between Orangeburg and Columbia in order to clear the way for the bizarre one-hundred-mile-an-hour midnight ride that would deliver Sellers to the state penitentiary. "They used patrol cars along the way to block access to the Interstate. There was no one on that road but us. That car went so fast it was almost unbelievable. We were flying. To this day, I don't know what they had built up in their minds. These men were nervous and scared. They had completely lost their sense of reality."
Normally, for security reasons, the penitentiary in Columbia is never opened at night. But, as the midnight hour approached on February 8, the state made an exception. When the police car from Orangeburg arrived, the prison warden was waiting. Within minutes, Cleveland Sellers was locked up on death row. "I survived these moments by not trying to make sense of it…by not trying to mentally process it," Sellers recalled.
It didn't matter that no one had seen any students with guns; no firearms or spent cartridges were found on the campus after the shooting; and a falling wooden banister—not a bullet—had hurt the only injured officer at Orangeburg. It didn't matter that no gunfire had been heard from the S.C. State campus before the shooting and no warning was given to the students. South Carolina's leaders had their own story—one clearly designed to preserve the state's carefully nurtured image and to protect their own reputations.
In a sweeping misrepresentation of the facts, Gov. McNair, Pete Strom and their law enforcement allies led the public to believe a two-way gun battle had taken place in Orangeburg and the loss of life was the fault of the students, not the police. Calling it "one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina," McNair laid out a remarkable scenario of events at a noon news conference on the day after the shooting.
"The years of work and understanding have been shattered by this unfortunate incident in Orangeburg," McNair told the press. "Our reputation for racial harmony has been blemished by the actions of those who would place selfish motives and interests above the welfare and security of the majority. It has become apparent that the incident last night was sparked by black power advocates who represent only a small minority of the total student bodies at South Carolina State and Claflin. We commend the large portion of the students who remained on the campus and took no part in the violent and provocative demonstrations."
The governor went on. He stated that the confrontation had taken place off campus and that the seriousness of the situation prior to the shooting had been compounded by the theft of firearms from the college's ROTC armory. In fact, every student was shot while on campus and the ROTC break-in occurred more than a half hour after the shooting. McNair spoke of a "flammable liquid bomb" used to set fire to a private residence as a provocation. Apparently, he was referring to the vacant house near the bonfire used for firewood. Though flaming objects had been thrown toward the house, the structure did not catch fire. The governor also said the patrolmen fired in response to the wounding of officer Shealy, the man hit by a falling piece of wood near the house. That injury, in fact, occurred a full five minutes before the patrolmen opened fire.
"The actions leading to the three deaths and the numerous injuries came only after an extended period of sniper fire from the campus and not until an officer had been felled during his efforts to protect life and property," McNair told the media. "Although it was later determined that the patrolman's injury was caused by some type of fallen missile or object, there was reason to believe that at that instant he had been shot. The other patrolmen, with instructions to protect themselves and others, responded with gunfire."
Quietly standing next to the governor as he made these statements was Pete Strom. Many of the factual errors, including the serious contention that a two-way gun battle had taken place in Orangeburg, would never be officially corrected. In fact, both Strom and McNair would repeat the assertions for years to come. In 2006, with the release of his public papers and oral history, McNair again had a chance to correct the errors. He not only failed to correct the long-discredited assertions, but repeated them. With an eye to his legacy, McNair told the South Carolina news media that his written recollections would be "invaluable" to scholars and historians who wanted to "find out the truth about things."
Following the shooting, the governor appointed Henry Lake, his former legal aide, as the official spokesman for matters involving Orangeburg. Lake, a former highway patrolman who carried a snub-nosed .38 pistol in his belt, had no criticism of his previous patrol colleagues but plenty for the "outside agitator" he blamed for the deaths. Accusing Cleveland Sellers of throwing the banister that hit Patrolman Shealy, Lake said, "He's the main man. He's the biggest nigger in the crowd."
Nathaniel Abraham, a black journalist who wandered among the highway patrolmen in the minutes preceding the shooting, is one of the few eyewitnesses who was in a position to dispute the official story. Abraham, who was working with civil rights leader Modjeska Simpkins and the Richland County Citizens Committee, was in Orangeburg to serve as a liasion between the state's civil rights leaders and the students who were fighting for social change.
In an interview for this book, Abraham said Pete Strom lied about the series of events that led up to the shooting. Sensing that an attack on the campus was inevitable, Abraham said he warned some of the students on the embankment that the patrolmen were almost surely going to strike. Just before the gunfire erupted, Abraham said, he approached Strom, grabbed his arm and pleaded with him that shooting the students was unnecessary.
"You're too late, nigger, get up there where you belong," Abraham quoted Strom, who was "suggesting" that the journalist go up on the embankment to join the students. At that moment, Abraham said, Strom raised a carbine. "He aimed it point-blank at me. It was so close it touched my chest. I slapped it out of his hand and ran."
After the rifle hit the ground, Abraham said Strom picked up the weapon and fired it in his direction. "He tried to kill me," Abraham said. Almost simultaneously the attack on the students began. "I ran through the dark on my hands and knees with bullets flying over my head," Abraham recalled.
Investigations into the shooting followed, the most prominent launched immediately by the FBI on the order of Attorney General Clark. South Carolina officials publicly pledged cooperation. Gov. McNair urged quick public disclosure of the FBI findings. In a statement, the governor said "a full disclosure of the facts is essential because of the concern and confusion over the tragedy and because of the pressing urgency that the facts in this matter be made public."
The governor promised that a full report of the activities of Pete Strom's police agency, the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and the South Carolina Highway Patrol "will be submitted and a subsequent full factual disclosure of these reports will also be made public as soon thereafter as possible."
It was all a charade.
In the 40 years after the shooting, Robert McNair never revealed to the public the results of any investigation of the Orangeburg massacre. He refused to allow journalists to examine the SLED report, if there ever was one. The head of the highway patrol said his agency made no investigation or report because it didn't want to interfere with the FBI investigation.
The governor also refused to name a special blue ribbon committee to investigate Orangeburg because he said Negroes would be suspicious of anyone he appointed. Yet, soon after, he refused to cooperate with an attempt by the University of South Carolina to study what happened at Orangeburg.
The governor's lack of cooperation with any serious investigation was made possible by his widespread public support among the white voters of South Carolina. These constituents, the ones that really mattered to the governor, bought his story. The state's unquestioning news media, a timid group that generally accepted McNair's public statements at face value, did no independent investigation.
One who didn't buy Robert McNair's story was Ramsey Clark. With Orangeburg, the Attorney General found that investigating the crimes of law enforcement officers can be a Byzantine task. Over time, Clark learned that FBI agents purposely misled the Justice Department about important details in the Orangeburg case; that key evidence was severely compromised by FBI agents friendly with Pete Strom and his men; and that his own U.S. Attorney, based in Columbia, would not cooperate with the investigation. The extent of the law enforcement corruption reached new heights one day when Robert Owen, the second-highest-ranking official in the Justice Department's civil rights division, sought out Charles DeFord, the agent-in-charge of the FBI office in Columbia. DeFord, to Owen's astonishment, was at the Holiday Inn in Orangeburg sharing a room with none other than Pete Strom, the key subject of the investigation.
McNair's promise of cooperation to Clark also proved hollow. The governor's pledge that he would instruct the patrolmen who were on the scene to give statements to the federal government extended only to the compromised FBI agents the patrolmen already knew as law enforcement cronies. Strom's state police officers, the highway patrol and Orangeburg police all refused to give interviews to anyone except their friends at the FBI.
Ultimately, with little evidence and the lack of support of his local U.S. Attorney, a federal grand jury in South Carolina refused to indict the highway patrolmen who shot the students. McNair was quick to portray the grand jury's failure to bring charges as an exoneration of the patrol's actions. He expressed hope this would "put an end to the speculation and uncertainty surrounding the incident."
Acknowledging it would be an uphill battle to convict the highway patrolmen in South Carolina, the Justice Department immediately filed its own criminal charges against the gunmen. The government alleged that nine patrolmen fired their weapons at the students "with the intent of imposing summary punishment," thus depriving them of "life or liberty without due process of law."
At the time, the charge was a misdemeanor and carried a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. (Later, the penalty for the same crime was raised to life imprisonment if the victim died.) The Justice Department felt it had a good case and an obligation to present the evidence against the patrolmen in open court. "It was our duty to enforce the law," said Clark. "If it seemed to us to be an important violation, we had an obligation to proceed even if we thought we might not win the case. If the juries won't convict, it's their responsibility. But I'm not doing my duty if I don't prosecute where I have a case."
The trial, held in the town of Florence, brought a rehash of the state's now familiar refrain. The patrolmen fired, their attorney argued, in their own self-defense preceding "a highly dangerous, explosive, riotous situation" caused by an outside agitator. At the time the patrolmen fired, said defense attorney J. C. Coleman, several hundred persons were "thundering at them, coming at them, charging, hurling brickbats, hurling pieces of concrete. Our evidence will show there was shooting at that time from that group." Some thirty-six witnesses testified for the prosecution, including students, newsmen, a fireman, three highway patrolmen, two National Guardsmen, and three FBI agents.
In his instructions to the jury, the judge said that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the patrolmen fired in anger and not in fear. Thus, the jury was asked to decide whether or not they believed the patrolmen acted in self-defense and believed they were in imminent danger when they opened fire.
In the jury room, the ten white members were ready to render an immediate verdict, having no doubt that the patrolmen had acted in self-defense. The two black jurors raised questions. It didn't take long, however, for the black members of the panel to be drawn to the prevailing view, noted one of the white jurors after the proceeding.
State officials claimed the jury verdict exonerated their actions in Orangeburg. The head of the state highway patrol said there would be no changes in the patrol's riot control tactics. In fact, five of the defendant patrolmen had received promotions in rank before the trial. One of the patrolmen who fired on the students was promoted in 1987 to the top job of commander of the highway patrol.
All that remained was the prosecution of Cleveland Sellers. Finally free from South Carolina jails on reduced bail, the activist was ordered not to come within five miles of Orangeburg. This meant he could not even retrieve his personal effects from the small frame house he had used as a residence during the demonstrations. During the two-year period before the trial, Sellers' possessions disappeared, including now valuable photographs and personal memorabilia from his civil rights days in Mississippi.
Though Attorney General Clark said he saw no evidence that Cleveland Sellers had anything to do with the Orangeburg demonstrations other than getting shot, South Carolina's officials were not about to let him go. Most of the original charges concocted by the lawmen on the night of the shooting were dropped. An Orangeburg grand jury, however, ultimately indicted Sellers for participating in a riot, incitement to riot, and conspiracy to incite others to riot.
A little over a year after the highway patrolmen were acquitted, the Sellers trial began in Orangeburg with the same overblown display of police power exhibited in the demonstrations that started it all. The streets outside the courthouse were barricaded. Nearly forty highway patrol cars were prominently parked in a nearby motel parking lot. At least one hundred National Guardsmen were placed on standby alert.
In a not-so-subtle attempt at law enforcement intimidation, twenty armed highway patrolmen sat shoulder-to-shoulder across the front row of the two-hundred-seat spectator's gallery in the Orangeburg courtroom. Yet, after hearing ten prosecution witnesses unable to connect Sellers to the events of the night of February 8, the judge dismissed the two remaining charges involving the campus massacre. A single riot charge, relating to the bowling alley protest, was left to stand.
When testimony began, Orangeburg police chief Poston and Pete Strom painted Sellers as a troublemaker. For over four hours, Poston described the demonstration, testifying that he saw Sellers "move from group to group" in front of Harry Floyd's bowling alley. When Sellers finished talking, each group became more agitated, he said. However, on cross-examination, Poston said Sellers had appeared peaceful and orderly and had committed no illegal acts on the night of the protest. As to what Sellers had said to the groups of students, Poston admitted he had heard not a single word.
Strom testified that he witnessed Sellers "violating many laws." When Sellers' attorney, Howard Moore, asked Strom to cite some specific legal violations, the gruff old lawman hesitated and then said, "He refused to disperse immediately when ordered by Chief Poston. That's a violation."
The defense presented no witnesses, convinced that the state had failed to make its case against Cleveland Sellers. The mostly white Orangeburg jury—bombarded with frightening rumors from law enforcement officials about Sellers for two years—felt otherwise. After just over two hours of deliberations, they found him guilty. The judge imposed the maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $250 fine.
South Carolina had nailed its scapegoat.
As a young reporter for United Press International based in Mississippi during the waning days of the civil rights era, I witnessed first-hand how the movement of the 1960s caused significant changes in racial attitudes throughout much of the South. The turmoil over civil rights forced white citizens in countless communities to face segregation head-on and begin to deal with the vast problems of racial inequality. The struggle spawned a more honest, racially sensitive political climate in many places. South Carolina, unfortunately, was not one of them.
The state's self-image as a haven of racial tranquility has always been a facade. Rather than genuinely deal with its long-festering racial problems, South Carolina's avoidance of high-profile civil rights conflicts allowed it to elude the introspection needed to wrestle with the serious issues that have long divided the races. Its "New South" mask concealed the state's special brand of aristocratic, paternal racism that has long thrived in a culture where blacks are widely regarded as uneducated, second-class citizens who depend on white benevolence to survive. Since such a paternalistic society places a high value on stability and maintaining class distinctions, it's easy to understand the need to blame an "outside agitator" when the illusion of normalcy is suddenly pierced.
Scapegoating, in fact, has been integral to white Southern culture since the slave insurrection scares of the pre-Civil War era. In his book, Honor and Violence in the Old South, Bertram Wyatt-Brown described a process of ferreting out rebel slaves that bears an uncanny resemblance to official South Carolina's handling of the Orangeburg shootings. "The process took the form of mass ritual: the initial discovery of the plot, the arousal of public opinion to the danger, the naming of conspirators through informers and trials, the setting of penalties, sometimes reviews by state authorities, the final disposition of the prisoners and the relaxation of agitation," wrote Wyatt-Brown.
In the antebellum years—just as in 1968—perceptions of social imbalance led to frantic demands for group conformity to the traditional moral values. During the time of slavery, wrote Wyatt-Brown, the obvious purpose was "the allegiance demanded of all to white-race superiority and the obligation of all to ferret out those who threatened the social structure through secret malevolence. Whether there by self-selection, as rebel leaders, or by white scapegoating of innocents, blacks in the dock for conspiracy and treason were despised as symbols of all that was evil."
For such occasions, Southern society had to have its ready supply of victims—individuals who Wyatt-Brown said were deviants by choice or by public decree. "They provided the standard of unacceptable conduct, making clear what rules could not be broken without reprisal. As the insurrectionary ceremonies attested, the powerless and guiltless were most often the subjects of popular sacrifice."
When one carefully reviews the words and actions of Gov. McNair and his law enforcement representatives in 1968, it's hard to miss the similarity of the Orangeburg massacre to the handling of plantation uprisings a century and a half earlier. McNair's emphasis on maintaining order by building up massive displays of armed force; the repeated use of the word "control" when referring to the conduct of the black students; the call for public and media unanimity against a common enemy; and, of course, the scapegoating of an innocent (Cleveland Sellers), who becomes a symbol of evil.
When the plan goes wrong, those responsible shift blame to others, decry the damage to the community and their own image and reputations, create an elaborate cover-up of the truth to distort history, and then enter a lifelong period of denial. Southern values are at stake, and honor must be maintained.
In the months following the Orangeburg shooting, officials in South Carolina attempted to make amends to the black community. A court ordered Harry Floyd to open his All Star Bowling Lanes to black customers. Floyd did as ordered, and John Stroman, the young bowler who led the first demonstration, eventually became one of his best customers. "Ol' Harry Floyd is all right," Stroman told a Washington Post reporter in 1978. "He's changed his views, you know."
The South Carolina legislature opened the public coffers to S.C. State, helping it finance a new round of campus construction. One of those new buildings, a facility for athletic and other college events, was named Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center to honor the slain students. Another, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Auditorium, is the site of an annual memorial service in remembrance of the tragedy.
Though the state responded to the crisis with increased funding for what is now South Carolina State University, it never officially admitted culpability in the campus shooting. The many investigations and reports promised by the governor never materialized. McNair began a long public silence on the subject of Orangeburg.
In the summer of 1992, McNair—then head of one of the state's largest and most politically connected law firms—agreed to meet with me in his office on an "off the record" basis. There would be no formal interview, just a brief meeting to say hello. The meeting was arranged by a former colleague who knew McNair well and had stayed in touch with him over the years. It had been about twenty-five years since I'd been in McNair's presence and I suspected that outside of my work on the Orangeburg story the former governor didn't remember me at all.
A few years earlier I had written and directed a public radio drama about the Orangeburg Massacre and the role of Gov. McNair was played by James Whitmore, the distinguished actor nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Harry S. Truman in Give 'Em Hell, Harry! It was well known that McNair had not been pleased about the publicity surrounding this nationally-broadcast dramatization of the Orangeburg shooting. It had fueled new public discussion about a story that he wished would fade away. This time I was in the early stages of research for this book and I suspect McNair had agreed to our meeting simply because he wanted to size up someone he considered to be a continuing source of irritation.
In my presence McNair never let on that Orangeburg mattered much to him at all. He greeted me warmly in his elegant private office just across the street from South Carolina's state capitol. He was known personally to be a gracious, cordial, hospitable man—one capable of making anyone, even an adversary, feel comfortable. That old saying—he could charm a cat off of a shrimp boat—applied perfectly to this easygoing politician.
But underneath his amiable veneer, McNair remained unresponsive on Orangeburg. After the small talk turned to the shooting, he reminded me that he was sticking to his "no interview" position. He did, however, maintain that he'd done the right things in Orangeburg.
Offering no explanation of the many glaring discrepancies in his public statements following the shooting, McNair suggested that I read an oral history covering his tenure in office recorded in the early 1980s by a University of South Carolina scholar for the state archives. That's all he had to offer on the subject. Our meeting ended as it began—polite banter without substance.
I took the former governor's advice and visited the reading room at South Carolina's state archives. What I found was irritating, though it shouldn't have surprised me. After spending a full day reviewing transcripts of various interviews on the McNair years, it became obvious that a key goal of this oral history was to sanitize McNair's involvement in the events leading up to the Orangeburg violence. The interviewers played softball with their subjects, not challenging statements that conflicted with well-known evidence. It was another whitewash.
For example, an interview on March 24, 1979 with Pete Strom was rife with misstated information and blatant factual errors. Strom confused the student-built bonfire—a threat to no one—with the nearby vacant house, which he claimed was "set on fire." The house never burned. "We decided, as a matter of public policy, we couldn't let anyone burn…a private dwelling," Strom stated. Going further, he said: "As the fire truck started pouring water on the fire, someone threw a banister and hit one of the patrolmen right in the face and that set it off…because they was already shooting." In fact, there was no shooting on the campus until the patrolmen opened fire on the students a full five minutes later.
Unfortunately, the years would not give Strom a chance to have a change of heart about his story. He died in 1989, still head of the state police, his reputation as "Mr. Law Enforcement" having reached legendary status in South Carolina.
For whatever reason, McNair's own recorded story in the oral history was sealed and unavailable to the public until July 16, 2006. When finally opened, there was little new. The four-volume transcript showed McNair entrenched in the past with his original story—still repeating the same laundry list of inaccuracies.
Perhaps most distressing was the kid glove treatment given McNair by his interviewer, Dr. Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. On response after response, Graham failed to challenge McNair on statements long ago proven to be untrue. The entire oral history project was a shameful example of shoddy, second-rate scholarship. Essentially, the project's misrepresentations served to mask the truth and make it more difficult for future researchers to get at the real story of the Orangeburg killings.
Beyond the oral history and some later publicity interviews, the former governor has rarely submitted to questioning about Orangeburg. One exception was an interview with Harriet Keyserling, a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, for her 1998 memoir, Against the Tide. Again, McNair repeated much of his original story—even the discredited parts.
In the interview conducted in early 1998, McNair told Keyserling he did not go to Orangeburg on the advice of Pete Strom. During the crisis, however, he said he met often in Columbia with black and white leaders in an attempt to resolve the issues. McNair said they were on the verge of an agreement "when the last riot erupted." The former governor then repeated, according to sections paraphrased in the book, two erroneous elements of the state's earlier story: First, "The troops had been withdrawn from the scene, but when the fire department, called to come back a third time to put out new fires in the burning house, refused to come without police protection, the troops rushed back." (Again, the house was not on fire; the troops were not withdrawn.) Second, McNair described the students' actions as a riot led by outside agitators that had to be quelled. (There was no student riot and there were no outside agitators.)
In his oral history, McNair seemed obsessed with the vision of a burning house. "Why send a fire truck in there? Why not let it burn? Well, why not let all those old houses along the campus burn...and those were nice old homes among them. My understanding was that this house belonged to some old lady, some widow lady."
Chad Quaintance, lead prosecutor for the Justice Department in the trial against the highway patrolmen, was surprised to hear that Strom and McNair had cited a burning house as a provocation for the shooting. "Memory can do funny things to people," Quaintance said in an interview. "The house was not on fire. I saw the house (after the shooting). There was no evidence to suggest that and it was never an issue. No one contended at the trial that the house was on fire."
Besides the slain students and their families, no one suffered more from the events at Orangeburg than South Carolina's scapegoat, Cleveland Sellers. After exhausting his appeals, Sellers served seven months of his one-year sentence on the charge of participating in the bowling alley riot. Upon his release, the director of South Carolina's Department of Corrections, William Leake, referred to Sellers as "a political prisoner." Soft-spoken and thoughtful about his Orangeburg experience, Sellers told the Charlotte Observer he was feared in 1968 because "I posed a threat to the civility that the state wanted to hide behind—[the idea] that everything was fine."
During the period between his conviction and final appeal, Sellers earned a master's degree in education at Harvard University. Later, he earned a doctorate in education administration from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. He wanted to be a college teacher, but the ghosts of Orangeburg haunted him for the next quarter century. "I filed [teaching] applications all over the place, but Orangeburg just killed that," Sellers said in a newspaper interview. "Administrators felt I represented some kind of threat to the stability of their institutions."
Unable to secure a teaching position, Sellers worked for the City of Greensboro for seventeen years, holding jobs with youth employment services, city planning, and public housing. Upon the death of both his parents in 1990, he returned to his childhood home in Denmark to manage his family's rental properties and teach a few classes at Denmark Technical College. Back in his home town, he became active with community groups, worked with children, and served for several years on the state board of education.
In late 1992, as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre approached, a series of events began that would eventually free Cleveland Sellers from the legal stigma of Orangeburg.
Rhett Jackson, owner of South Carolina's largest independent bookstore and a former president of the American Booksellers Association, was approached about a pardon for Sellers. Jackson was a member and past chairman of the South Carolina Probation, Pardon and Parole Board.
In most states, the governor holds the authority to pardon. In South Carolina, that power rests with the seven-member board on which Jackson served. Jackson suggested that Sellers submit a formal application requesting the pardon.
"I agreed that Cleveland Sellers wasn't guilty of anything other than being set-up with the Jim Crow laws and being fed up with the injustice of watching his mother and father not have equal treatment and facilities in the world," Jackson said. "If I'd been a young man and black at that time, I'd have been there with him."
After submission of all the paperwork and a positive field investigation by the board's staff, Jackson quietly lobbied the board's six other members for support of the Sellers application. "I found mostly a good attitude. Two or three members didn't know much about it. It had been twenty-five years. I wanted the state to say 'We're sorry. Here's a pardon, let's erase [the conviction].' It was time to tell this man to live his life. I told the other members the state could have charged another hundred students with the same offense, but they had to have some scapegoat. Cleveland just happened to be the one because he was visible."
Luckily, South Carolina's news media failed to learn of the efforts to pardon Sellers until just before the scheduled vote. With no adverse publicity and little time for controversy to build against the proposed pardon, the board voted its unanimous approval on July 20, 1993.
After the pardon was granted, Jackson received only one negative phone call. It was from a man who said he was in law enforcement during the time of the shooting. The board, he insisted, didn't know the whole story of what had happened in Orangeburg. When Jackson asked for his name, the man refused to identify himself. The caller did, however, have a question about Sellers. "What's that 'boy' doing now?" he asked. "Boy!" Jackson barked into the phone. "Are you speaking of Doctor Cleveland Sellers?" The man hung up.
As legal forgiveness from the state, the pardon given Cleveland Sellers was the first and only formal acknowledgement by a governmental body in South Carolina that all was not right with the official version of the events in Orangeburg. One of the key reasons the state failed to come to grips with Orangeburg, Jackson surmised, was that former Gov. McNair and the law enforcement community continued to feel a deep guilt over the deaths of the students.
"To say 'I was wrong' are three very difficult words," said Jackson. "I think the law enforcement people must have some guilt about the shotguns they had loaded with buckshot. Or the story that they were fired on first, which was absolutely proven not to be so. They are just trying to protect themselves. It's an old story and they want their version to stand [as history]. But it's not the true version."
Though Jackson said that he'd known Robert McNair most of his life, he had never spoken with the former governor about the shooting. "He's a decent man, he's got a good heart, and he was moving to be a real moderate in race relations," said Jackson. "I think this thing just happened, and he didn't think it through clearly. He believed what Strom and the others were telling him. If in the end, he'd just said publicly that he didn't handle it right he might have gained a lot of respect from the black community.
"But he was close to Pete Strom and it was just easier later on not to deal with it and to try to shift the blame," Jackson continued. "All human beings get in that situation sometimes. They regret how they handled something, but they just can't correct it. They can't say 'I was wrong.'"
John West, McNair's lieutenant governor and successor as governor, told me his former colleague "agonized" for years over the Orangeburg killings. "Orangeburg has been a very, very sensitive part of his life," West said of McNair. "I know it has caused him a great deal of grief and concern. I'm very sympathetic with Bob McNair about the Orangeburg situation."
As to the unaddressed holes in official accounts of Orangeburg, West, who died in 2004, made an observation. "Given the circumstances of the times, the inconsistencies are perhaps more understandable. There was a feeling among most law enforcement officers that segregation should be maintained."
Jordan Simmons, a corporate computer executive after a long career in the military, saw the continuing denial over the facts of Orangeburg as similar to the repeated claims that the Holocaust never occurred during World War II. "Regardless of the proof and all the evidence, there are still those who claim the Holocaust didn't happen," said Simmons, who, in his mid-fifties, still had fragments of highway patrol buckshot in his neck. "It makes them feel comfortable; it makes them feel secure. It removes a sense of guilt. It's a natural tendency for people who experience something hurtful to try to deny it. But eventually they have to face up to it to get well."
Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General, agreed that on a personal level McNair probably never put the tragedy of Orangeburg behind him. "Governor McNair had political ambitions that made him want to be seen as a very strong governor," Clark said. "Therefore he had to show these [demonstrators] that they had to behave themselves in his state. He, like some other governors at the time, wanted the feds to solve their racial problems. They didn't want to take the heat. Orangeburg changed McNair. He was badly hurt by it, just as [former Michigan governor] George Romney was hurt by the Detroit riots. I don't think they ever get over it."
A Missing Link Emerges
During my long quest to learn the truth about the Orangeburg violence, I was given many tips. Most led to dead-ends. One of vital importance to the story would take more than five years to pay off.
George Dean, a lifelong resident of Orangeburg, owned and operated a men's clothing store at 1185 Russell Street. In 1968, he was the only black member of the South Carolina National Guard. I phoned him at his store on Sept. 8, 2000 after being told he had been called to duty during the days prior to the shooting.
I asked his help in putting together the still missing pieces of the massacre story. Though extremely polite, Dean was cautious and hesitant. Yes, he was the only black Guardsman on duty in Orangeburg. He had driven a jeep that shuttled key personnel to the central communications facility and had protected the Guard's main ammunition storage depot.
However, he was conflicted and told me he couldn't reveal what he knew. The reasons: he had kids in college and a mortgage on his business. There might be a price to pay for his going public with details on the shooting, and he couldn't jeopardize his family's welfare in the event there was a boycott of his business.
At this stage, I asked him if we could go "off the record." I read him a summary of the path I was taking in this book. I asked him if he would simply warn me if anything were not true. Through carefully calculated silence, Dean signaled I was on the right path.
I kept in touch with George Dean in the subsequent years. I followed the progress of his children through college. I made sure he remembered my interest and never pressured him for his story. Until early 2006, that is.
I was planning a trip to South Carolina in February to introduce Frank Military, a screenwriter researching Orangeburg, to various figures in the massacre story. A week before the visit, I called George Dean again.
"George, all your kids graduated from college?" I asked. "Yes," he said with a chuckle, sensing what was coming. "And you finally paid off that mortgage, right?" "Sure did." Well, my friend, the time is now. It's time to tell your story."
With George Dean, as I had learned over the years, there are no guarantees. When Frank and I finished our work in Orangeburg on the afternoon of February 13, 2006, I was told to call George on his mobile phone. He'd let us know then if he could do the interview.
Our schedule that day was tight. We visited Rhett Jackson in Columbia in the morning and then drove to the Chestnut Grill on the outskirts of Orangeburg, where we had lunch with Bill Hine, an expert on the massacre and professor at S.C. State University.
A comfortable, family-style lunch hangout, the Chestnut was clearly a community gathering place. As Hine briefed Frank Military and I on the town, we spotted Andrew Hugine, the ninth president of S.C. State University. A former S.C. State student himself, Hugine was clearly sympathetic to our mission and offered the services of his office for anything we needed. It was a warm, gracious welcome to Orangeburg.
Less than a month later, Hugine would apologize to nine former students for the actions of Dr. Benner C. Turner, S.C. State's fourth president. The students, who were expelled or suspended from the school in the wake of peaceful protests in 1956, had returned to the campus for the first time in 50 years.
"You fought for justice, equality and dignity," Hugine told them. "You were exercising your constitutional rights to challenge segregation. We can never ever repay you. We cannot undo the past as much as we would like to."
We'd learn that day—more than I had previously realized—that Orangeburg had a very deep history in the American civil rights movement. These 1956 demonstrations at S.C. State came before Rosa Parks got on a bus in Montgomery; before the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro; and before Emmett Till had been lynched.
Later in the day, after Hine had guided us on a tour of the town and walked us through the area of the shooting, I retreated to our rental car to call George Dean. I dialed his mobile number. No answer. I got voice mail. Dejected, I tried again. Bingo! This time he answered.
"Meet me in the parking lot behind the Trinity Methodist Church in exactly one hour," he said abruptly.
No address or directions were given, and—it became immediately clear—that none were needed. A towering presence across a street from the S.C. State campus, the Trinity church, founded in 1866, is an icon of civil rights history. It was a fitting place for our meeting with Dean.
Precisely on time, George Dean drove into the nearly empty parking lot and greeted us. He led us to a small office complex next to the church, where he was well known by the staff, and waved us into a conference room.
There was little small talk. I received permission to record audio of the interview and we got started. Within minutes, it was clear that Dean, a precise and cautious man, had carefully considered what he wanted to say (and not say) about the Orangeburg Massacre. For the next hour, we'd hear an intense, spellbinding monologue. There was little opportunity for questions.
In 1965, George Dean, facing imminent draft and almost certain of duty in Vietnam, became the first black member of his state's National Guard. He volunteered in order not to fight in what he considered an unjust war. "I perceived it then and that's the way I perceive it now," he said firmly.
The oldest male in a family of seven children, Dean was raised by parents who were professional educators. He was literally brought up on the campus of S.C. State. "They didn't have enough money to send me to Canada," Dean recalled. "I didn't see myself going into the military. I knew the percentage of black Americans in Vietnam. I didn't see my chances being good for survival."
Having taken ROTC in college, Dean aced the test for admission to the Guard. He did so well, in fact, that the surprised and skeptical white test administrators put him through more hoops, asking him for credit and character references. Each time he complied and exceeded expectations. There was no denying he was an ideal candidate. Finally, in late 1965, George Dean integrated the National Guard. He'd serve as a weekend soldier for six years.
"It wasn't long before I realized that I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire," he recalled. It took three years for other Guard members even to recognize him as a fellow soldier. "When I joined the Guard in '65, it was just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The South was still in an uproar. Every time there was a civil unrest, they called the Guard. Here I was, the lone black soldier in the militia."
While Dean experienced racism within the ranks of the Guard, he was simultaneously castigated by members of his own black community. "I was really between a rock and a hard place." He still winced at the pain of being called to Charleston in the mid '60s, where his job was to protect electrical utilities during a civil rights disturbance.
While walking along King Street with a uniformed white colleague, an elderly black lady leaving a hotel approached them. "She looked at me and she said 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself.' It's hard to explain the feelings. I didn't blame her. She just didn't understand. But it hurt no less. That's the price we pay when we carry the coat in America."
Another difficult moment came in 1966 when the Guard was called to stop a civil rights disturbance at Voorhees College in Denmark, the home town of Cleveland Sellers, a local activist that Dean knew and admired. "We went to Voorhees and I just didn't feel right," Dean said, recalling that he was threatened with a court martial over his reluctance.
"We entered the campus there at about five in the morning to find no unrest or students. I was a member of a unit that was supposed to quell an unrest and all they did was go into an institution of learning to destroy physical property. The Guardsmen knocked down the doors of professors' offices and classrooms to find whatever they perceived was there."
Over time, Dean's skill and professionalism was recognized within the Guard's ranks. He got along well with John Shuler, his commanding officer, a white man he worked with over the years as both a civilian and a soldier.
Then came 1968. "Orangeburg simmered for a long time before Cleve even got here," Dean noted. "Cleve was victimized like so many others. Racism in Orangeburg was no different from any other Southern town. It had all the makings of any other Southern community—from its segregated (movie) theaters to its water fountains to everything else."
When the Guard was activated by Gov. McNair for duty in Orangeburg in early 1968, Shuler chose to keep Dean close to him. Dean's assignment was to drive Shuler's jeep and, when other soldiers were away, to protect the main door of the National Guard Armory on Broughton Street, about two miles from the S.C. State campus.
"Being the jeep driver...you know drivers, chauffeurs, waiters hear and see a lot of things." On the nights leading up to violence in Orangeburg, Dean said he heard plenty, much of it perceived by white ears in ways far out of proportion from reality.
"It's like the three of us in this room could see something and perceive it in a totally different manner. That's what happened."
At the wheel of a jeep, Dean repeatedly drove his white Guard superiors to the communications center at the telephone company, where they had direct communication with Gov. McNair. Time after time, he interpreted their comments to the governor as "amplified" and over the top.
"In another setting, at another time, you would say it was blown way out of proportion. I've thought...these were civilian soldiers just like myself that carried a different rank. They were still Southerners. White Southerners. So many stories in the South are so parallel. In that whether it's the police chief, the mayor, or even the solicitor—they are all in the same room with the same damn hood. Just when night came up, they wore a different hat. There's nothing unique about the South. So I can see why they might have seen things in a different light."
From the conversations that he overheard, Dean is convinced that if Robert McNair was not fed misinformation, he was certainly given wrongly perceived information by his men in the field.
By February 8, Dean had been on active duty about a week, mostly securing the armory door when not driving the jeep. Shuler, his commanding officer, obviously aware of his sensitive position, didn't deploy him for other duties in Orangeburg. "He didn't put me in harm's way. I won't fantasize what might have happened if he had. I just thank God that he didn't."
On the morning of February 8, Shuler approached Dean at the armory and gave him a welcome break to go home, get a shower, and take a short rest.
"I lived about two miles from the armory and one block below the campus on Buckley Street. The first thing I did is go home, get out of my uniform and put on my civvies. Mobility in town was really on lock down. Tanks were at every crossing....every major entry into the city and even at every exit or entrance to the campus. I got on my bicycle and I rode to the campus."
Dean went directly to the office of Dr. Maceo Nance, S.C. State's acting president. He asked the secretary if he could speak with Nance and was immediately shown in. Nance was meeting with two student leaders in his office at the time.
"Dr. Nance, if there's any way humanly possible that you can keep the students off the street tonight, do so." Dean warned him of the skewed perceptions of the white men outside and how dangerous the climate had become.
Dean and Nance each maintained an air of formality in this critical exchange. Though the young man wore civilian clothes during their brief meeting, Nance knew very well that Dean was the only black member of the National Guard. They had a long personal history in a small town. As a kid, George Dean was Maceo Nance's paper boy!
Dean had a gut feeling that compelled him to warn Nance. "I knew from standing at the door five days and from seeing and hearing SLED to Highway Patrol to Guardsmen. I knew the climate. I knew what I heard and I knew what I was seeing."
When he returned to duty, Dean's first sergeant ordered him to start clipping ammo. "Ammo comes loose. It doesn't come clipped. It comes in a wooden box. And I was ordered to start clipping ammo."
A clip is a small metal case that is used to store multiple rounds of 5.56 millimeter ammunition together as a unit, ready for insertion into the magazine of the M16 semiautomatic rifles—commonly called carbines—used by the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies.
In the evening, a short time before the shootings on the campus, Dean brought some clipped ammo from the armory for Pete Strom, the chief of SLED. As Strom put a load of M16 ammo on his shoulder and walked away, he uttered words that George Dean will never forget:
"We're tired of playing with them niggers."
In less than an hour, Dean got the word from Shuler that some students had been shot. "I didn't know the magnitude then and I didn't know until the next morning."
Dean makes it clear he didn't witness the shooting and cannot say definitely who pulled the triggers. "But I do know the record shows that the students were shot in the back while retreating from a peaceful demonstration for their civil and equal rights. They were denied (those rights) and their lives were taken. They were wounded. And justice to this day has never been served."
At this point, Dean—increasingly emotional from telling his story—began to weep.
"I think it would be easier to talk about this if I could sit here at this time and say that I think justice was served. But in my heart of hearts, I don't think that has happened yet. Smith, Hammond and Middleton will never come back. And triggers don't squeeze themselves."
Dean stood and took off his microphone. He asked us to take a short walk with him. We left the building and crossed a lawn over to the massive Trinity United Methodist Church. We entered a side door and descended some steps to a large room in the basement.
It was sunset and the dimming light through the church's stained glass windows cast an eerie, warm glow over the vast space. This very room, Dean told us, served as headquarters for the '60s civil rights movement in Orangeburg. It pulsed with rich history—the site of key organizational meetings, as well as rallies attended by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Roy Wilkins.
As we walked into the chilly evening air outside the vast sanctuary, completed in 1944, it was hard to escape the view. Just across the street, only a few yards away, was the grassy hill, where on another chilly Februrary night 38 years earlier, guns opened fire on the students at S.C. State.
"Jim Crow is not something you want to talk about every day," Dean told us. "Jim Crow was not pretty. Any place in the South. My story is many stories of blacks in the South. Many had it worse than me. I was never lynched or hung from a tree. I was not humiliated."
However, Dean said sadly, "I sit in my own hometown, where I was reared, educated, and raised my family. I would like to think I've been a pretty respectable and decent citizen. (Yet) I still see the antebellum South." He pauses to consider his words. "Do I feel good saying that? Hell, no."
Dean was never asked by any investigator or law enforcement agency to tell his story. "I don't think the Southern white man is ready to correct any wrongs yet. The Southern white man still deals more with what his peers think of him than what's right. It's like the kid on the school grounds that wants to remain popular instead of doing what's right. I don't think the hearts of South Carolinians have changed to do what's right (in order) to remain popular with their friends."
I asked Dean: Have things improved in Orangeburg since 1968?
"Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Has substantive change taken place in Orangeburg? No. There's a different code of racism now. I would say that most change in the South, and most change in my town, which I love so dearly, is cosmetic. The new South ain't so new."
I had a final question for Dean: Will the issue of the Orangeburg shootings be resolved in our lifetime?
"I was optimistic of that. I don't know whether I am anymore. I will never say never because, as a Christian, I believe if you ever lose hope, you've lost everything."
The Struggle to Shape History
Eight years after his pardon and more than three decades after being shot, on a day that Cleveland Sellers could only describe as "mind boggling," came proof that miracles do happen. It was about noon, April 6, 2000. Over 2,000 people—white, black, rich, and poor—gathered at the end of a five-day march from Charleston to Columbia to call for removal of the Confederate flag from the dome of the South Carolina capitol.
The protest march ended with the remarkable image of Cleveland Sellers standing outside in the crowded statehouse plaza alongside the incumbent Democratic governor of South Carolina, Jim Hodges, and his Republican predecessor, David Beasley. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, speaking to the cheering crowd, hailed fellow marcher Sellers—now on the faculty at the University of South Carolina—as a "wonderful civil rights leader." Then the mayor noted that his own son viewed Sellers as a hero.
“I had to pinch myself," a giddy Sellers said after the ceremony in which he was finally recognized and embraced publicly by the state's political leaders. "We are witnessing South Carolina's coming into the civil rights era. Unfortunately, we've come in at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But it's important that we've started to come."
The irony of watching a broad cross section of South Carolinians use the protest march—a core tactic of the civil rights movement—was impossible to miss, especially to a seasoned organizer like Sellers. "It just says the tactics that were employed in the civil rights movement were tactics that are generic—anybody can use them in order to register their complaint. It's interesting that we're in the year 2000 and we have to use our feet again."
Absent from the march and rally protesting the Confederate flag was Robert McNair, a man with whom Sellers had by now spoken with on several occasions about the events at Orangeburg. "I've addressed my differences with him," said Sellers. "I've raised the issues and I've tried to make clear what happened. Now, it's up to him and others to decide."
It appeared that McNair decided, at least on a personal level, that Sellers was not the dangerous "outside agitator" that he publicly blamed for causing the violence in Orangeburg. In January, 2001—during an outdoor campus luncheon following a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the University of South Carolina—Sellers dined with McNair and his wife at the former governor's table.
As John West, McNair's successor, approached, the former governor rose to introduce Sellers to West. "Do you know my friend, Cleveland Sellers?" McNair asked West. "Delighted to see you," a surprised West responded.
"I didn't know [Sellers] previously," recalled West. "But I recognized the name very well. I thought it was a rather neat sort of situation."
A month later, however, at the thirty-third anniversary of the shooting, Sellers made it clear that old wounds remain open. As he spoke to a memorial assembly on the Orangeburg campus—one that included Gov. Hodges—the activist broke down and turned away from the audience. Embraced and comforted by his fellow shooting victim, Jordan Simmons, a shaken Sellers returned to the lectern, speaking again after the crowd rose to cheer for him to continue.
"For years the state and the nation have been silent about the Orangeburg tragedy," Sellers said haltingly. "Some of us remain in a state of denial concerning the truth. We must tell the truth of this tragedy. We should no longer blame the victims."
Fighting back tears, Sellers proceeded slowly.
"Truth comes to us from the past—like gold washed down from the mountains. The only way we find the truth is to examine the past honestly. [The year 1968] for me was massive distortion, criminal injustice, and persecution. I was vilified and made to feel like a predator.
"For the past thirty-three years, the struggle for justice and equality has continued to rage inside of me. I don't look back with pity. I know that we were right. I'm not angry because I know justice will prevail. Today we come to ease our hearts and souls...by showing our humanity. We have also come to tell our stories."
And tell their stories, they did. During a day of remembrances, many of the victims of the Orangeburg shooting—men then in their 50s—sat in front of video cameras to bare their souls for a new oral history project on the massacre. Finally, after three decades, the victims of Orangeburg recorded their personal stories for the ages.
Charles Hildebrand, age fifty-two, shot four times on the night of February 8, said that the oral history will help counter the state's "official" version of events for historians in the future. "From the standpoint of history and being able to tell your own story, this oral history is very important," Hildebrand said. "If you look at some of the newspaper accounts during that time, the story of Orangeburg has been misrepresented."
In an effort to balance the many one-sided accounts of the shooting by supporters of Robert McNair, transcripts of the students' oral history interviews were deposited in several libraries and archives throughout the state. S.C. State University and the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston house and maintain the original tape recordings.
"We wanted to bring some perspective to what happened on the campus that night, and the days before and after," said Bill Hine, a history professor at S.C. State and director of the oral history project. "We felt there was still much information that could be gleaned from people who had not previously been interviewed or made any public statement about the events in 1968."
Hine expressed optimism that the oral history would provide an accurate accounting of what happened on the night of February 8. "Though there has never been any evidence to support it, there are still people who believe the students were armed, raging militants about to burn down the town," said Hine. "I think this oral history shows this was not the case."
Coincidentally, the day the former S.C. State students recorded their accounts of 1968 also provided an excellent illustration of how South Carolina's mainstream media establishment has tried to manipulate the Orangeburg story over the years.
The incident occurred at The State, a newspaper established in 1891 as—according to its own corporate history—"a voice in opposition" to "dishonest and incompetent" political bosses. In 1986, The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper, was purchased by the Knight-Ridder Corporation.
News columnist John Monk, a leading journalist at the venerable daily, used the thirty-third anniversary of the Orangeburg shooting to write that former Gov. McNair had "presided over a whitewash" of the facts surrounding the tragedy.
In a prominent front-page article, Monk noted that Gov. Hodges, the first chief executive to attend the annual Orangeburg memorial event, had broken new ground by uttering the word massacre when he referred to the shooting. By using the word in his speech, Monk wrote, Hodges "acknowledged state law officers were wrong to gun down defenseless black students."
Monk also highlighted the difference in language used by McNair and the then incumbent governor in describing the events at Orangeburg. "Instead of calling the slain students 'agitators' (as McNair had), Hodges referred to them as 'brave young men' seeking to exercise basic rights," Monk wrote.
The respected journalist acknowledged for the first time on the pages of The State that the young activist Cleveland Sellers had been made the "scapegoat" for Orangeburg. He also noted McNair's absence at the Orangeburg ceremony, and quoted Charita Drummond, age nineteen, who said, "The old governor, I guess what happened really didn't mean much to him. He never came to pay his respects."
John Monk's article, published on February 9, 2001, the day after the ceremony, hit the newspaper's conservative readers like a bomb. For the first time in more than three decades, the newspaper had challenged the official version of the white establishment's role in the police violence. Irate calls and letters shook the newsroom in Columbia.
The first indication that an editorial meltdown was occurring within the newspaper came when Monk's story was not posted on The State's web site. Then, without even speaking with John Monk directly about his article, The State's publisher, Fred Mott, began his own damage control. He picked up the phone and called Robert McNair to apologize.
"I think [Monk's article] was flat one-sided and, quite frankly, an embarrassment to this newspaper," Mott told me in an interview for this book. "I thought the way he went about it was unprofessional. He used some loaded words. So I called Governor McNair and said 'I'm sorry.'"
As Mott discussed the story, he became increasingly agitated. "What Monk did in his article was to take specific pieces that fit how he wanted to view [the events at Orangeburg] and use it to pat our current governor on the back and carry out a whitewash [of his own] of what all the facts were," Mott said.
The State's publisher strongly challenged the use of the word massacre in describing the Orangeburg shooting. "That word is inflammatory," he said. "Anytime you use loaded words [in describing] a high-ranking former official, it's something that needs to be looked at and edited carefully." He added that the newspaper's editors had let the article slip by without proper scrutiny because "it's politically correct to take the view that John Monk did."
When asked if he'd personally studied the facts surrounding the Orangeburg shooting, Mott began a clumsy account of events in 1968 that appeared to mix up the activities of John Stroman, the man who organized the original bowling alley protest, and Cleveland Sellers, the activist who was shot by highway patrolmen.
Much of his personal information on the shooting, Mott told me, was acquired from the writings of South Carolina historian Walter Edgar, who heads the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina. Edgar's 716-page South Carolina: A History, published in 1998, devoted a mere two paragraphs—less than half a page—to the Orangeburg shooting. That book, Edgar's office confirmed, was the only work in which the historian wrote about the violence at Orangeburg.
Edgar, who avoided the use of the word massacre in his book, wrote that "three young men fell, mortally wounded" on the night of February 8, but made no mention that twenty-seven others were shot by white highway patrolmen. After the shooting, McNair and other state leaders "worked diligently to restore trust and good will," Edgar wrote.
In a written response for this book, John Monk addressed his publisher's criticism of the Orangeburg column: "Clearly, Mr. Mott and I differ on this one. It's only fair to point out, however, that under Mr. Mott, I and other writers at The State have freedom to write on a wide variety of controversial topics. Under Mr. Mott, The State—though not perfect—is by far the most progressive, thorough and aggressive newspaper in South Carolina."
McNair Finally Goes Public
As the Orangeburg story evolved through its fourth decade and Robert McNair approached his mid-80s, efforts intensified in South Carolina to rehabilitate the former governor's image. As the former S.C. State students recorded their accounts for history, McNair collaborated with a former aide, Philip G. Grose, on a book that would describe his years in public office.
Publication of the book, titled South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights, was on July 16, 2006. This same day, McNair's oral history became available to the public at the state's archives, while his political papers were added to the research collection at the University of South Carolina.
On the afternoon of July 16, a book signing party was held for McNair and Grose, the only credited author of the publication, in a library on the main campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The event was packed with seeksucker-clad politicians from the McNair era. In the thick air of back-slapping mendacity, the affair was a scene straight from a Tennessee Williams play.
In the book, McNair sidestepped any serious response to the Orangeburg shooting by having Grose rehash a general summary of the story, followed by an oblique six paragraph "statement" purportedly written by the former governor. The killings were "one of the most tragic moments in our state's modern history," the statement noted.
"The fact that I was governor at the time placed the mantle of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and I have borne that responsibility with all the heaviness it entails for all those years," McNair's statement said.
That was it. After almost 40 years of silence, McNair was only going to take "responsibility" for the Orangeburg Massacre. Of course, he was responsible. He was governor. McNair's statement was empty verbiage and clearly designed to be that way. But though he had said almost nothing, McNair's words made headlines throughout the state.
Some in South Carolina's media attempted to amplify McNair's meaning, equating the statement with the much stronger apology that came from Republican Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 and the expression of "regret" from Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges in 2001. But it wasn't the same. Sanford said "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."
I wanted to question McNair further about his statement, but he twice refused my request for an interview. So, I did what everyone else at the book signing did in order to speak with him. I bought a book and waited in line to have him sign it.
When I reached McNair, I wasted no time. "Governor," I asked, "the blacks want you to say 'I'm sorry' and explain what happened (in Orangeburg). Are you going to do that…go beyond the book, or is that (statement in the book) forever?"
Slowly looking up and reaching for my book, McNair snapped "I think that's pretty much it. I can't explain it." His eyes then shifted away.
"They want an apology," I shot back. "You're not willing to do that?"
"I can't explain in detail what happened. I wasn't there."
I looked McNair straight in the eye. "So that's it? What's in the book is it?"
"I know what I've been told. But not being there, I don't know a way of doing what people want me to do." The old politician's face began to harden into a frown.
"They are thinking that you should say, 'I'm sorry,'" I shot back.
"Nah," McNair said, shaking his head negatively. "I said I regret it."
He swiftly turned away, signaling an abrupt end to our brief encounter.
For members of South Carolina's local media, McNair was far more accessible and accommodating. In one of the day's more remarkable encounters, the former governor was interviewed by Ashley Yarchin, a female reporter for Columbia's WLTX-TV.
Like most television reporters, the youthful Yarchin clearly hadn't been around in the time of the Orangeburg shooting. McNair, aware that she had no background on the story, took the opportunity to run roughshod over the truth.
Here's a partial transcript of Yarchin's interview with McNair on the events of Orangeburg:
Yarchin: "How did all that happen (in Orangeburg)?"
McNair: "In Orangeburg, I don't know how all that broke down. Other than there were competing groups...a little bit."
Yarchin: "Many in the black community feel it's not resolved because there was no complete investigation…"
McNair: "Well, there was...The unfortunate thing...I said the next morning that we could not investigate ourselves with any credibility. If I'd appointed a commission regardless of who was on it or had it investigated internally or statewide it wouldn't have had any credibility. I called the Attorney General of the United States...urged him to have a full, complete, comprehensive investigation...which he did. And that report I think is available at South Carolina State College. The Southern Christian Leadership also investigated and I've seen parts of that report."
Yarchin: "So people like Cleveland Sellers should be blamed for the deaths?"
McNair: "I think they ought to pass on and contribute to the state."
"I have a concern about some people exploiting things like Orangeburg for commercial purposes," McNair continued. "That's one of my big concerns." (Then...after camera stops...he tells Yarchin... "You know what I'm talking about...writing a book and trying to make a movie.")
Yarchin then asks McNair to comment on the collection of his papers made available to the research library at the University of South Carolina:
"It's a wonderful thing for the university. It's invaluable to the state in the future for scholars and historians. Because, as I say, they can come now and find out the truth about things…what happened."
Though McNair told the press the material in the archives represented the truth, he told me he couldn't remember the details. His oral history, though recorded in 1982, stated in the preface that his words were recently checked again for accuracy. In fact, McNair officially confirmed that he had proofread and edited the documents personally in 2004.
However, by his actions, McNair, an astute lawyer who maintained deep, lifelong connections with South Carolina's power brokers, chose to continue to obscure the facts about what happened on his watch in 1968. With the release of his official papers and the book in the twilight of his life, he had a chance to correct previous misstatements he made about the Orangeburg Massacre. Instead, he chose to continue to spread false information and to cloud the issues surrounding the shooting. McNair left a sad legacy.
A Child of the Civil Rights Movement
As the aging Robert McNair tried to rewrite his civil rights legacy for South Carolina's whites, an unexpected obstacle clouded the attempted historical makeover. It came in the form of a gifted 21-year-old law student whose story was so remarkable that not even this savvy former governor could have anticipated such a monkeywrench from out of the blue.
Bakari Sellers, the youngest son of McNair's old Orangeburg nemesis, Cleveland, was a new breed of activist blessed not only with a keen intellect and warm personality, but with inside knowledge of how the old political machinery of South Carolina actually worked. "February 8, 1968 is the most important day of my life," he remembered, having grown up during the years of state-imposed injustice suffered by his family.
"Governor McNair said in 1968 that the shooting had upset the racial harmony of South Carolina. And I thought: "There was racial harmony in South Carolina? Before the Orangeburg Massacre? What are we talking about here? In South Carolina, we do a great job of covering up things. We do a great job of hiding things."
Unlike most people in South Carolina, Barkari Sellers fully understood the former governor's attempts to fog the story of what actually happened in Orangeburg. McNair no doubt cringed when this young freshman law student at the University of South Carolina overcame extraordinary odds in 2006 to be elected the youngest state legislator in the nation.
For once, McNair could not label a young activist an "outside agitator" or intimidate him with surveillance from his state police force. And, finally, a young black man with extraordinary moral authority had risen to a position high enough to challenge and cast doubt on the governor's fact-challenged story.
In 2006, when he decided to run for South Carolina's legislature against an 82-year-old white incumbent seeking his 25th year in office, Bakari was given little or no chance of victory. Yet, with the help of friends and fellow law students, he trudged door-to-door, knocking on 2,600 of them from morning until dark.
The son of Cleveland Sellers pulled a major upset, winning the election by a margin of 1,954 to 1,591 votes. "It was a referendum on change," Bakari said. "It was about hope. My election has brought hope to a lot of people."
After the election, Bakari exploded to public attention—drawing public praise from national leaders that included Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, and Rep. James Clyburn, the Democratic Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was identified as one to watch in the future.
Though his campaign themes were targeted to better education, improved care for the elderly, and a promise to help his community out of a lingering economic depression, it was impossible for the residents of this poverty-stricken region not to see a determined young man carrying the torch for a legendary father and his contributions to America's civil rights movement.
Unlike Robert McNair's restrained "member of the club" conservatism in the legislature, Bakari Sellers vowed to enter the white-dominated body "kicking, yelling and screaming" against the injustices that have long plagued his poor constituents. His people, victims of South Carolina's paternalistic politics, had waited long enough for real change.
One of Bakari's first chores was to call for, after almost four decades, a formal investigation of the Orangeburg Massacre. As Rep. Sellers, he sponsored a joint resolution that was introduced in the House of Representatives on March 29, 2007 to create a committee to review the events of that day and report to the General Assembly and the governor.
Unlike his African-American contemporaries who have fled the poverty and lingering racism of rural, black South Carolina, Bakari, a 2005 graduate of Morehouse College, chose to stay home and "be part of something larger than me." That value, he readily admitted, was a key component in his unusual upbringing. For, in addition to his mother and father, his mentors were some of America's most prominent civil rights leaders.
Former District of Columbia mayor Marion Berry, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Stokely Carmichael, Kathleen Cleaver, and Reggie Robinson were among the many civil rights luminaries that visited with the Sellers family during Bakari's childhood.
"Jesse Jackson, Jr. (later the Illinois congressman) would stay at our house," Bakari recalled. "He would wash his clothes there. He'd baby sit my sister and brother. Knowing you have this kind of connection with history is the coolest thing."
Going on fishing trips with his father and "Uncle Reggie" Robinson, a family friend and former organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Bakari was exposed to important ideas and learned that he must acquire the knowledge to express them if he wanted to keep up with the towering intellects around him.
"My parents made education fun," the young Sellers recalled. "Everything we did, whether it was Monopoly, Scrabble or trivia games, was part of learning. It was important in our family."
Following in the activist footsteps of these and other civil rights leaders, like Septima Clark and Benjamin Mays, became young Bakari's goal. He entered law school with the intention of entering politics. He saw himself seeking South Carolina's governorship one day, and was clearly aware that success could cost him his life in a Southern state.
In addition to his constituents, watching carefully over Bakari's shoulder are his family—perhaps his severest critics. His father, a man of few words, made it clear to his young son at a 2007 public forum that as a lawmaker it's now his job "to fix things." Bakari looked on with an uneasy smile.
Then there's the rest of the family. Bakari's mother, Gwen, a former news anchor woman, is now a professional educator. His older sister, Nosizwe, is a medical doctor. His older brother, Cleveland the III, is a minister. How does he feel about the family? "Pressure," Bakari snapped. "Failure is not an option for me." Expectations were high.
"I haven't accomplished anything until I see the quality of life in my district improve," he said of the 35,000 people he represented. "For a long time, poor rural South Carolina didn't have a voice. I want to be that voice."
Not exactly the words Robert McNair wanted to hear. After thinking he'd finally put the Orangeburg Massacre behind him, the former governor wasn't prepared for the new challenge he faced from a young man who will accept nothing but the truth.
"The Orangeburg Massacre has become the litmus test for race relations in South Carolina," Bakari said. "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."
1968 Archival Photos by Bill Barley