The 1968 Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina
South Carolina SC African-American History 1968 Orangeburg Massacre

On the night of February 8th, 1968, three students – Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton (who was still in high school) – were killed by police gunfire on the South Carolina State University campus in Orangeburg. Twenty-seven others were wounded. None of the students were armed and most were shot in their backs or the soles of their feet.

Tensions between students and police had gradually escalated over a period of three nights, following efforts by students to desegregate All Star Bowling in downtown Orangeburg. The bowling alley was owned by Harry K. Floyd, who claimed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to his establishment.

Although many black and white members of the community had tried to persuade Floyd to integrate, he refused. Appeals to the US Justice Department also went unheeded, and on the evening of Monday, February 5th, a group of roughly 40 SCSU students, led by senior John Stroman, entered the alley. Floyd denied them the right to play, and after the police arrived, the students returned to campus.

On Tuesday night, Stroman tried again. This time, he and other students were met by 20 police officers who initially barricaded the bowling alley's locked door. Once the door was opened, Stroman and over 30 others entered the premises, where they remained for just under half an hour. In acknowledgement of the brewing tension, Senator Strom Thurmond had been dispatched to Orangeburg to try to maintain peace. After speaking together, Stroman advised the protestors to leave if they did not want to be arrested.

Fifteen students did not leave. As they were led to waiting patrol cars, an angry crowd gathered outside the bowling alley. New recruits arrived from campus, and some of the incoming students armed themselves with bricks obtained from a nearby construction site. An intervention by Henry Vincent, SCSU Dean of Students, secured the release of the jailed students, including Stroman, who returned to the parking lot. The scene settled until a firetruck, ordered by police chief Roger Poston, arrived. A newcomer, Poston was unaware that SCSU students had been sprayed with firehoses at a 1960 sit-in. At this point, fear and a sense of betrayal swept the crowd, despite pleas from Stroman, who climbed onto a car to calm fellow demonstrators.

By this point at least 50 (some say as many as 100) law enforcement officers were present, many brandishing riot sticks. Both Poston and Stroman made repeated calls for calm, but it was too late; the seeds of riot had been sown. 300-400 students rallied, and a surge of angry youngsters pressed against the bowling alley's storefront, hurling insults and fists. The troopers responded with broad-scale beatings. Reports from that night bear witness to female students being held down and clubbed by officers. Wounded and enraged, the students broke windows out of cars and four buildings during their retreat.

Wednesday, February 9th, passed in a haze of whispers and waiting. Classes were cancelled, and students met in the school auditorium to plan a protest march for later that day. Permits were sought but denied by the City of Orangeburg. White officials and businessmen joined the meeting, but their lack of support further fueled the students' dissent. Together with their professors, the student body compiled a formal list of grievances and presented them to City Hall at 4:30 PM. The list asked for 12 items, a third of which focused on unfairness within the local medical community. For example, number nine asked leaders to "encourag[ing] the Orangeburg Regional Hospital to accept the Medicare Program."

Editor's note: This page is under construction July 1, 2015. Please bear with us as we research this important event.

Back at South Carolina State, a bonfire was lit, and firemen backed by 70 policemen moved in to douse the blaze. Either a banister rail or a rock hit a highway trooper, who fell to the ground bleeding. Roughly 100 students were present, and when they moved closer to watch the fire go out, a patrolman shot his gun in the air as a warning. Thinking the shots had been fired by a student, nine other troopers and a city policeman opened fire.

The next day, Governor Robert McNair held a press conference in Columbia. McNair had been elected a year earlier with 99% of the state's black vote, and while he called it "one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina," he also said the shootings were an "unfortunate incident" and bemoaned the fact that the Palmetto State's "reputation for racial harmony had been blemished."

Operating on inaccurate news reports, McNair said the incident occurred off campus and placed blame on "black power advocates." At the same time, McNair personally asked the FBI to conduct an investigation the morning after the shootings, and in his 2006 biography, accepted full responsibility for the events of that night.

Although the Orangeburg Massacre took place just two years before Kent State, it did not receive widespread national attention, in part because early stories blamed students and outside agitators. Cleveland Sellers, an Orangeburg County native who served as the program director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was arrested on riot charges. Two-and-a-half-years later, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. All of the law enforcement agents involved in the shootings were acquitted.

Sellers, who had been shot during the attack, was pardoned in 1993, nearly 25 years later, after evidence proved he was innocent. In the intervening years, he earned his master's degree from Harvard and his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greenwood. He now serves as the president of Clafflin College, located in his hometown of Denmark.

South Carolina has never officially investigated the events surrounding the Orangeburg Massacre, and this lack of resolution prevents a painful wound from healing in our state.

Events Leading to the Orangeburg Massacre

  • South Carolina State College Historic District - This brief study examines Orangeburg's role in Civil Rights Movement and the events that led, over a course of six years, to the Orangeburg Massacre, including a protest march in 1960 where 1,000 Orangeburg students were fired upon with tear gas and full-pressure water hoses, and 300 students were arrested.

The Orangeburg Massacre: February 6-8, 1968

South Carolina Responds to the Massacre

  • Cleveland Sellers - The only individual to be imprisoned as a result of the Orangeburg Massacre, Sellers spent seven months in prison after a 1970 trial wrongfully convicted him on a riot charge. He was pardoned by the State of South Carolina in 1993. Sellers served as director of the African-American Studies program at the University of South Carolina before becoming the president of Clafflin College.
  • SC Senate Bill S.22 - to create a commission to make recommendations to compensate the victims and families of the Orangeburg Massacre - introduced January 2007
  • Lawmakers urge probe of Orangeburg Massacre - House Bill H.3824 would establish a commission to investigate the incident and prepare a formal report - May 2007 article
    SC House Bill H.3824 - introduced March 2007
  • Eulogizing Governor Robert McNair - Writer Frank Beacham delves into McNair's mishandling of the events of February 8th, 1968 and his continued efforts to gloss over an important event in our state's history. Click on 'Orangeburg Massacre' at the top of the page
  • FBI will not reinvestigate Orangeburg Massacre - December 2007
  • Orangeburg Massacre Victim Reacts to Decision - Cleveland Sellers reacts to the decision of the FBI not to reopen the case of the Orangeburg Massacre - December 2007
  • Closure for Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Bass - December 2007 - Survey of the responses to the Orangeburg Massacre and the need for a formal investigation

The Orangeburg Massacre Today

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