The Orangeburg Massacre occurred on the night of February 8, 1968, when a civil rights protest at South Carolina State University (SC State) turned deadly after highway patrolmen opened fire on about 200 unarmed black student protestors. Three young men were shot and killed, and 28 people were wounded. The event became known as the Orangeburg Massacre and is one of the most violent episodes of the civil rights movement, yet it remains one of the least recognized.
All-Star Triangle Bowling Lanes
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation had officially ended in much of the South, but it hadn’t changed the attitudes of some of its white citizens. Many blacks were still persecuted and discriminated against by whites.
One such person was Harry Floyd, owner of All-Star Bowling Triangle bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He claimed his bowling alley was exempt from segregation laws since it was private property. But Orangeburg’s black community was determined to change his mind.
Orangeburg was the site of two mostly black universities: South Carolina State (SC State) and Claflin University. This put the town in the unique position of having more educated blacks than some other southern states. Many students became involved in the civil rights movement and were determined to turn the tide of racism within their small town and beyond.
Local black leaders tried several times to convince Floyd to integrate his bowling alley. He refused time and again stating it would offend his long-time clientele.
Orangeburg Protests Begin
On February 5, 1968, a small group of students from both SC State and Claflin went to All-Star Bowling Lanes to protest its whites-only policy. Floyd refused them entry and they left peacefully; word of Floyd’s refusal spread across both college campuses like wildfire.
The next night a larger crowd returned to the bowling alley and were met by police who threatened to blast them with water from firehoses. The students fought back by taunting them and lighting matches. A plate glass window was broken, and the police began beating students—male and female alike—with billy clubs.
Protestor Emma McCain later recalled, “I remember feeling the sensation of pain when they were beating me. It was almost like they were trying to teach me a lesson or something. We were all unarmed.” By night’s end, fifteen students had been arrested and at least ten students and one police officer were treated for injuries.
Again, word spread quickly about the bowling alley unrest, enraging students, and escalating tensions in Orangeburg. Expecting looting and violence, some store owners armed themselves.
Governor Robert McNair, supposedly one of the more moderate governors of the Deep South, insisted “Black Power” leaders were inciting the student unrest and called in the National Guard, tanks and all, to intimidate the students and squelch the anticipated violence.
The student protestors were joined by Cleveland Sellers, a native South Carolinian, and civil rights activist. After graduating from Howard University in 1967, Sellers had returned to South Carolina with the goal of teaching students about black history. His activism, however, put him on the government’s radar and earned him a reputation as a “black militant.”
By Thursday, February 8, Sellers and hundreds of students had gathered on SC State’s campus to protest racial segregation at the bowling alley and other privately-owned establishments. National Guard troops and a heavy law enforcement presence commanded by Chief Pete Strom were also there under orders to keep the protestors on campus and prevent them from inciting a riot. Many of the police officers were armed with shotguns and buckshot.
The students started a large bonfire in front of the campus entrance. They taunted law enforcement and threw rocks and other objects at them. Eventually, Chief Strom ordered the fire be put out. As firefighters extinguished the fire, a police officer was struck with a heavy wooden banister. Unsure of what was happening and claiming to have heard gunshots, some police raised their guns and opened fire in the darkness upon the protestors for several seconds. Utter chaos and terror ensued as students scrambled to escape.
Three students were shot and killed by the police: Freshman Sammy Hammond was shot in the back; 17-year-old high school student Delano Middleton, whose mother worked at SC State was shot seven times; and 18-year-old Henry Smith was shot three times. At least 28 protestors were shot and wounded, mostly in the back or side as they fled the assault. Sellers was shot in the armpit.
Media Failures and Backlash
Sellers was taken into custody at the hospital and charged with inciting a riot. Chief Strom claimed Sellers took advantage of America’s fear of black power and fired-up students who would never have staged resistance on their own. Governor McNair also blamed the incident on black power agitators. The Orangeburg Massacre happened within days of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War and, as a result, was largely ignored by the press. In addition, some press coverage was incorrect.
For instance, the Associated Press initially reported that the student protestors had been armed, fired first, and exchanged gunfire with police officers. This was false, although some officers later stated later they’d heard small arms fire and believed they were being shot at before shooting into the crowd in self-defense.
The black community was appalled at the slaughter and the subsequent bad press. Many took to the streets in protest and demonstrated in Columbia, South Carolina’s capital.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to President Lyndon B. Johnson stating that the deaths in Orangeburg, “lie on the conscience of Chief Strom and the government of South Carolina.” The head of the NAACP traveled to Orangeburg to challenge the media’s portrayal of the confrontation.
Orangeburg Massacre Investigations
Out of the at least 70 armed police officers on the scene of the Orangeburg Massacre, just nine were charged with shooting at the protestors. The federal government brought them to trial for imposing summary punishment without due process of law even though U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark later said the officers had lost their self-control and “committed murder.”
At the trial, the officers testified they’d acted in self-defense. Despite no solid evidence to support their claims, all the men were acquitted. One of the officers, Corporal Joseph Lanier, Jr., would say later, “I was just a soldier. I was a person that was there reacting to what my leaders had told me to do.” He also said, “We tried so hard for it not to happen. But it did happen. And for others to think that we were wrong in the way we went about it…you would’ve had to have been in our shoes.”
Sellers wasn’t so lucky: He was brought to trial in September 1970, but the state couldn’t prove he’d incited a riot at SC State on the night of February 8. The judge, however, allowed the state to charge him with rioting at the bowling alley instead and he was convicted and sentenced to one year of hard labor. He was released after seven months.
During his incarceration, he wrote his autobiography, The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC. Over two decades later, he was officially pardoned.
The aftermath of the Orangeburg Massacre
After Sellers’s conviction, the state of South Carolina effectively closed the book on the Orangeburg Massacre, despite no one being held accountable for the students killed and injured that night.
The lack of justice and conflicting accounts of what had happened inflamed the racial divide between black and white residents of Orangeburg. Even many historians have largely left the incident out of civil rights articles and educational textbooks.
Survivors of the Orangeburg Massacre were determined the deaths of Hammond, Middleton, and Smith would not be in vain. In 1999, many joined with white Orangeburg residents and called for healing in the community. In 2003, Governor Mark Sanford offered a written apology for the massacre.
In 2006, Cleveland Sellers’s son Baker was elected to the South Carolina Legislature. Speaking with emotion at an SC State memorial service to honor those lost in the massacre, he said, “We join here today in our own memorial to remember three dead and 27 injured in yet another massacre that marked yet another people’s struggle against oppression. These men who died here were not martyrs to a dream but soldiers to a cause.”
Despite official government apologies, most survivors of the Orangeburg Massacre feel South Carolina continues to suppress knowledge of what really happened. Fifty years later, they’re still haunted by the carnage that took place and vows to continue to honor the victims and work to bring the truth to light to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.