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 February 6th, a group of roughly five SCSU football players entered the alley. Floyd denied them the right to play. When they would not leave, Floyd called in the police, who proceeded to beat these and other students with batons.
The following night, more students returned and 15 were arrested. On the final night, February 8th, 300 students gathered in the parking lot of the strip mall outside the alley. These demonstrators were confronted by 100 local and state policemen and also beaten with batons. Reports from that night bear witness to female students being held down and clubbed by officers. Angered, the students broke the windows of cars and stores in their retreat to campus.
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 new 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. Cleaveland 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
The Orangeburg Massacre: February 6-8, 1968
South Carolina Responds to the Orangeburg Massacre
The Orangeburg Massacre Today
More Orangeburg Massacre Resources, Books
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