Have you heard about that time in the late sixties when three student protesters were shot dead by state troopers? No, it wasn’t Kent State, in May 1970, when four white students were killed by the Ohio National Guard. Nor was it Jackson State, eleven days later, when two black students were killed by Mississippi police. This was in Orangeburg, South Carolina, two years earlier, and it was in many respects a watershed moment: it marked the first time in U.S. history that students were killed by police on their own campus, according to sociologists Charles Gallagher and Cameron Lippard, and it presaged the ruthlessness with which the state would repress the rising Black Power movement in the months and years to follow. Yet, in the words of a 2008 New York Times article, the incident “never pierced the nation’s collective memory of the 1960s.” Amid so many tributes to the events of 1968, we would do well to remember it today.
On February 8, 1968, in the college town of Orangeburg, state troopers and police shot into a crowd of African-American activists, killing three and wounding twenty-eight more, in what came to be known as the Orangeburg massacre. The murders of Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton at the hands of the police was a stark reminder of the limits of the civil rights movement’s gains. It also forced a meditation on how far the South—and the rest of the nation—still had to go in terms of both implementing the letter of the law on civil rights and respecting newfound racial pride among African Americans.
The incident’s origins traced back to the All-Star Bowling Lane, one of only a few remaining segregated institutions near the campus of the historically black South Carolina State College (now university) in Orangeburg. After the owner refused to recognize community members’ demands to desegregate the bowling alley, students took the lead in protesting the establishment. On the evening of February 5, a group staged a sit-in at the bowling alley’s lunch counter. The police were called in, but no one was arrested. When the students returned the next night, however, the police were waiting along with a contingent of highway patrolmen, blocking the entrance to the bowling alley. Fifteen students were arrested after they rushed the door and refused to leave. Before long, the protest escalated. A crowd of at least 200 formed, and tensions flared when a fire truck appeared on the scene, stoking fears that fire hoses might be used to disperse the crowd. When a window was broken, police charged and began beating the students brutally with batons. Returning to campus, some students, already bloodied, broke more windows in outrage.
The next day, February 7, students issued a list of demands to the city—including the integration of the bowling alley and an end to police violence—and requested a permit for a peaceful protest march, only to be rebuffed. Undeterred, students rallied for a third night of protest on February 8. By this time, Governor Robert McNair had called in the National Guard as well as more state troopers, and the South Carolina State campus was on lockdown. With the 1967 Newark and Detroit uprisings fresh in their memory, officials had responded to the growing tensions by imposing a state of siege on the college town. The students who came out to face the authorities were met with fatal violence.
Accounts of the evening all agree on the following chain of events: Students assembled at the front of the campus, confronting the National Guard and various local authorities who were there to enforce the lockdown. At one point, the students made a bonfire. (According to some sources, it was to keep warm; but a fact sheet distributed in the aftermath of the shooting by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee stated that the bonfire was to keep out white assailants who had been driving through the campus and shooting at students.) Police tried to put out the bonfire, and a piece of banister was thrown from the crowd at an officer, injuring him. In response, a deputy shot his firearm into the air, ostensibly to calm the crowd. Startled, other officers began firing at the crowd, believing the shot had come from the protesters. By the end of the evening, roughly thirty students had been hit with shotgun rounds, almost all of them struck in the back as they were fleeing the gunfire. Three were dead.
Two of those killed, Samuel Hammond and Henry Smith, were students at South Carolina State College. The third was high-school student Delano Middleton. All three were barely eighteen years old. By the following day, the shooting in Orangeburg had begun to gain national attention—albeit with the Associated Press falsely reporting that there had been a “heavy exchange of gunfire” between police and protesters. (None of the students had been armed.) The question of what caused the incident would immediately be wrapped up in questions of civil rights, Black Power, and the militant stance of many African Americans in the South in 1968.
Governor McNair walked a fine line between addressing the concerns of the demonstrators and blaming them for the incident. He called it “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina” but argued that it was radical militants who had sparked the entire confrontation. McNair said that the police presence was necessary due to the incendiary language of the Black Power movement. “The militants are continually crying ‘Burn, baby, burn’ and shouting that blood is going to flow,” he said at a February 17, 1968 press conference about the shooting. “You have to take them at their word.”
Leftists and other civil rights activists, for their part, were quick to condemn the shooting. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “the largest armed assault undertaken under color of law in recent Southern history.” Freedomways, one of the leading organs of the African-American left, paid tribute to the victims in their Spring issue. The names of the three young men killed in Orangeburg were included in a special standalone page headlined “In Memoriam to the Martyrs,” which also included the names of five black Africans executed by the white supremacist regime of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Saying that the three were “assassinated by government troops in Orangeburg, South Carolina,” the editors of Freedomways published this memorial in an issue which, due to another tragic murder in April, would turn into a tribute issue to Martin Luther King, Jr. In that sense, this homage to the Orangeburg “Martyrs” also became a tribute to the internationalist spirit of King himself, and what he referred to as the evil “triplets” of militarism, racism, and economic exploitation.
No one was ever convicted of the murder of the three young men in Orangeburg; nine officers were indicted for firing on the protesters, but all were acquitted. It was not until 2001 that a governor of South Carolina—Jim Hodges—even attended a ceremony commemorating the tragic events of February 8, 1968. Meanwhile, the only person convicted of a crime in connection with the massacre was SNCC activist Cleveland Sellers, who served seven months in prison on charges of having incited a riot.
The massacre and its aftermath should call our attention to three broad themes: first, the persistence of police brutality against African Americans, North and South, and its role in galvanizing protest; second, the importance of HBCUs in black freedom movements past and present; and third, the extent to which gains of the civil rights movement felt incomplete even at the time.
We now associate protests against police violence with Black Lives Matter, in contrast with the civil rights movement’s emphasis on integration and economic justice. Yet police brutality was a recurring theme of civil rights demonstrations, North and South, throughout the 1950s and ’60s and even before. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” Martin Luther King, Jr. thundered during his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Malcolm X’s speeches in the early 1960s often alluded to the problem of police officers attacking innocent African Americans. Their warnings about trigger-happy police would only seem more prescient as racial tensions rose across the country in the second half of the decade.
The fact that students at South Carolina State College led the way in Orangeburg’s desegregation campaign should not be surprising. HBCU students played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement and went on to become some of its most iconic leaders. It was students from North Carolina A & T University who performed the first sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Martin Luther King, Jr. and numerous other civil rights leaders were HBCU graduates. Orangeburg itself had been a site of organizing for more than a decade before 1968, with student strikes and marches for civil rights dating back at least to 1956.
For decades, HBCUs were a place where African Americans not only created intellectual communities but used them to launch campaigns against white supremacy. A renewed pride in HBCUs among African Americans—reflected by a jump in freshman attendance numbers at several schools in 2016—is testament both to a growing awareness of this history, and to how many African Americans feel alienated from most predominantly white college campuses.
The deaths in Orangeburg also remind us of the numerous murders of innocent African-American men and women after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed in 1964 and ’65, respectively. Sammy Younge, Jr. was murdered while trying to desegregate a bathroom in a gas station in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1966. He was the first young African-American college student to die protesting for civil rights. That the deaths of Younge, Hammond, Smith, and Middleton came after the major legislative victories of 1964–65 attests to the level of white backlash that has followed every major step toward racial equality in the United States.
Remembering Orangeburg, then, means taking stock of how far we still have left to go. If police brutality has continued to plague African-American life since 1968, so too has a lack of accountability for it. And with the Trump administration attempting to paint Black Lives Matter activists as “black identity extremists” and enemies of the state, the kind of attitudes that confronted Black Power activism in 1968 have returned to clamp down on African-American protest today.
If there’s one thing we can take solace in, it’s that despite acts like the Orangeburg massacre, African Americans have never lost the ability to dream of a better America—and to fight for it, no matter the cost.
Robert Greene is a PhD candidate in History at the University of South Carolina, who studies American intellectual history and Southern political history. He has been published in Dissent, In These Times, and Scalawag, and is the book review editor of the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.