Many Americans are familiar with the Civil Rights movement, of course: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the Selma-to-Montgomery March. And due in large part to the Neil Young song, Americans are also familiar with the May 1970 massacre at Kent State University in Ohio, where four students were killed and nine others injured. However, far fewer Americans are aware of the Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina in February 1968— when three students were killed and twenty-seven injured.
Given its name by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader H. Rap Brown, the Orangeburg Massacre occurred in Orangeburg, South Carolina after a group of students from two historically black colleges in the area – South Carolina State and Claflin – attempted to integrate a local bowling alley that declared itself a private, members-only establishment— which was an obvious front that meant “Whites Only.”
As one may expect, the effort was met by consecutive nights of unrest in the small town, during which one officer was injured, a dozen students were arrested, windows of cars and downtown businesses were smashed, and the National Guard was called in. Then, what occurred earlier that week segued into something much worse on February 8. According to the website BlackPast.org:
The students gathered on the South Carolina State University campus instead of at the bowling alley this time. They built a bonfire which a law enforcement officer attempted to put out. In the process he was injured by a piece of a banister thrown from the crowd. A highway patrolman then fired his gun into the air in an attempt to calm the crowd. Upon hearing the shot, other officers, thinking they were being fired upon, opened fire into the crowd of students.
Three men – Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton – were killed, and more than two dozen were injured.
As to why the Orangeburg is not a well-known event in American history, the website history.com shares that the events in this small South Carolina town occurred almost simultaneous to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Furthermore, “some press coverage was incorrect.”
For instance, the Associated Press initially reported that the student protesters 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 Raleigh, South Carolina’s capital.
Of the event, Smithsonian.com’s Lorraine Boissoneault wrote this on the fiftieth anniversary:
Despite being the first deadly confrontation between university students and law enforcement in United States history, the Orangeburg Massacre is a rarely remembered tragedy. Occurring two years before the better-known Kent State University shootings, and two months before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the incident “barely penetrated the nation’s consciousness,” writes Jack Bass in his 1970 book The Orangeburg Massacre. Fifty years later, the events of the evening remain contested, and no formal investigation into the incident has ever been undertaken.
Today, two books, Bass’s book (above) and Blood and Bone by Jack Schuler from 2012, and a documentary titled Scarred Justice all offer more information on the event.