The Orangeburg Massacre A Feature Story Detailing the Actual Events of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre and Seeing How Far It Has Come

By: Ashleigh Morgan Francis Montford

Introduction

About 200 people gather in the Martin Luther King, Jr. auditorium at South Carolina State University. It’s Feb. 8, 2017, 49 years after South Carolina State students attempted to desegregate a bowling alley in Orangeburg.

Those gathered in the auditorium are commemorating an event that has left a scar on the city in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

Among the moderately filled room sits Cleveland Sellers, the only person who was arrested during the demonstration on Feb. 8, 1968.

Almost fifty years after the event, which has come to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre, Cleveland still works for change in his community.

“The whole idea of desegregating the bowling alley was thought of before the Christmas holiday break, and then students went home. And when they came back they didn’t start on the bowling alley right away.” Cleveland Sellers begins talking about the Orangeburg Massacre as it was yesterday when he was taken away to jail for three weeks before he could post bail.

Feb. 8, 1968

“This demonstration was different than other demonstrations. Demonstrations started at South Carolina State in 1957 when a student was expelled because he was pressing the school to not use vendors that didn’t hire Blacks. And, two months before he was to graduate he was expelled.” Cleveland Sellers describes the differences between the protests leading up to the Orangeburg Massacre versus this one.

About eight seconds of gunfire as the nine Orangeburg county officers empty their guns into the crowd of Black men as the group of 200 were running from the officers is all that audiences in the county heard on the morning news. Feb. 8, 1968 began as the third day of a protest orchestrated by the SCSU students in efforts to desegregate a local bowling alley.

The Orangeburg Massacre began as a protest on Feb. 6, 1968, because even though the remainder of the city was beginning to integrate, this business still refused to serve African-Americans. When a student, John Stroman, and some friends initially went to the bowling alley for service, they were denied and ignored. After Stroman touched a salt shaker, the owner’s wife, who is now deceased, threw it away. She threw away everything they touched. Upon noticing this, Stroman walked over to the jukebox and urged the owner and his wife to throw it away as well, where then they threatened to call the police.

"I hugged the jukebox and I said, 'Now throw this in the trash can,' " Stroman recalls. "Harry got peeved and said, 'I'm going to call the police.' "

During the first two days of the protest, the city was experiencing tension, because of the student’s aspirations to have equality and not allow the segregation to continue.

On the second night, police from the local station and state troopers met the students, with over a dozen being arrested. Injured and bloodied students returned to the campus infirmary, while other students damaged nearby stores by threw bricks and rocks.

On Feb. 8, 1968 a group of students attempted to walk to the bowling alley one more time. Upon arrival the police cars lined the parking lots and on the inside of the glass door, police officers and White citizens were there to stand their ground. As the students approached the door, the police pushed against the inside of the door and the SCSU students pushed against the outside. With so much physical tension, the glass shattered and the barrier between the opposing forces was instantaneously diminished.

Sellers begins describing that night, “All you hear is the class shattering, and then you begin to see these White guys in plain clothes walking to these cars that were parked in the bowling alley. They had batons with this little piece of raw hide on the end of it.”

During this ordeal many people were bruised and hit with rocks, bats and other weapons in the possession of those coming against them.

Cleveland Sellers

Born on Nov. 8, 1944, Cleveland is a pillar in the Orangeburg community in South Carolina, as well as in history books. With being involved in civil rights since the brutal death of Emmett Till, Cleveland has been non-yielding.

The Orangeburg Massacre

Returning to campus and igniting a bon fire in efforts to keep warm on a cold night, nine patrolmen approached the campus and the bon fire in attempts to diminish it.There are people who claim a piece of firewood was thrown from the fire which injured a police officer, and what triggered the initial fire into the air to calm the crowd. The officers began emptying their guns into the crowd, because they thought they said they were defending themselves.

As the crowd of young Black collegiate men tried to escape the buckshot’s eroded the skin of 30 Black males, killing 3 and injuring 27. The buckshot’s caused the campus to evolve from a place of higher education and uniformity from the student body to a scene out of a horror film as bloodshed was coming from all angles.

Most of students were shot in their backs, with the buckshot’s penetrating their skin from the back of their ears to piercing them in their faces and even the soles of their feet.

The governor, Robert E. McNair, along with the nine patrolmen responsible for this insisted this was a direct cause of two-way gun fire and the patrolmen had to defend themselves.

None of the students had a weapon on them.

“There were no ambulances allowed on the campus. All of the police made the ambulances stay outside of the gates.” Cleveland points to the front of campus as he stands in the field of the shooting. He drops his hands by his side as he looks diagonal to the field, and pointing, “You see that place over there? That used to be the infirmary.”

Walking further into the field, “The campus had to put out an alert because the state was not going to help us. They put out an alert, for anyone who had a car to come to the infirmary and that’s how we took care of each other. A lot of students were taken to their parents house, or a hospital in another town.”

Standing with his arms crossed, Cleveland adds, “We were afraid to go to the local hospital, because we thought the police would be there to meet us and we were right. They were there.”

Among the Black males shot, one was high school student Delano Middleton, who was shot in the chest. Even though he was not a college student, he was a regular attendee on the campus because his mother was a cleaner there and because he liked the grilled cheese sandwiches at the cafeteria, says Scarred Justice filmmaker Judy Richardson.

That day Middleton was on campus waiting for his mom, so he could walk her home.

“This, this is where Delano was when he was shot… right here.” Cleveland shows the steps Middleton used to sit on as he waited for his mom.

When Middleton’s mom made it to the hospital to be at her son’s side, he held her hand and told her, " 'You've been a good mama but I'm going to leave you now.' She starts saying, 'The Lord is my shepherd... ' He repeats it and says, 'Thank you mama, I feel so much better now.' "

Then he passed away as she was over him.

Among the three males shot, there was also Henry Smith, who was an ROTC student, who had been shot five times, succumbed to his injuries at the hospital. Freshman football player Sam Hammond died on the floor of the college infirmary.

“It was horrific how they handled the bodies. They wouldn’t allow the paramedics to touch them. They kicked their bodies to see if they were alive.” Cleveland’s face becomes overcome with sadness, “They were laid on the ground,” he gestures how the bodies were laid, “And they just, just kicked them.” Cleveland winces as he shows how the officers kicked the three shot male bodies.

After investigations were completed, the news was revealed that the students were not armed. Even though there was excessive force used, it was not justified.

Cleveland Sellers who was initially charged with five felonies, was only charged with one. With being charged with insinuating a riot, he served seven months in prison and was banned from Orangeburg for a little while. However, in 1993 Cleveland was pardoned, which cleared his felony record.

Bobby Eaddy, “I studied here at South Carolina State from 1967 to 1970.” Pausing to think about how to articulate to importance of the annual commemoration of the Orangeburg Massacre, “It is an annual reminder about what happened 49 years ago, surprisingly it stays so fresh in our minds. It really feels like it was yesterday.”

“But this serves as an opportunity to remind the community and to bring younger people up to date.” Eaddy recollects

Where are we now?

“First, the destruction of the Black community begin shortly after the Civil Rights Era was at its peak, and what that was all about was those in authority, those politicians and all decided they needed to disband any community and anything with community focus.” Cleveland begins talking about the non-progression of the Black community in relation to rights and situations still happening in the Black community today.

Individualism, materialism, and drugs are key elements that begin breaking a part the Black community.

“You have to have a sense of community in order for you to build a movement.” Cleveland adds. “There needs to be cohesiveness and community to build those kinds of things, but one thing that I discovered in Mississippi and Alabama is that the key to the Civil Rights Movement is that you have to learn how to organize people..”

Orangeburg as a city or county does not acknowledge the date as anything. Not only is there only a ceremony on the campus, but the government has never apologized for the treatment of Blacks during this event. One mayor mentioned it was a scar on the history of Savannah, but has not done much past that.

“There’s been a lot of advances. Although there have been a lot of progression I think also in our communities, there was this point in time that we really took our rights for granted, and as a result we lost some.” Eaddy pauses and looks to the passing clouds, “I have been about the mission of challenging the young Blacks in our community to become more active.”

“It wasn’t the old folks that was fueling the civil rights movement, they were leaders, but the faces out front were always young people and I think that’s something that’s a disconnect between the youth in America now and their place as far as advancing rights.” Eaddy points to a group of elementary aged students as he hones in on his passion.

“You don’t have to look for the Black community, you can buy a home anywhere you can afford. You don’t have to sit on the back of the bus. You don’t have to pack your chicken in a shoebox when you go on a trip. You can stop at any resturaunt that you can afford.” Eaddy adds. “The issue we face now is economics and we have got to do is get more involved in the economics of America so we get to the point that it benefits us.”

Scarred Justice is a documentary that details the events of the Orangeburg Massacre and shows the reality in how the law and government abused their power in efforts to cover up the truth behind the incident.

Robert Davis, who was a sophomore at SCSC during this time states in the video, “We couldn’t hardly go nowhere you know what I mean. I mean its just that they gave us hell everywhere we went.”

With Orangeburg having two predominantly Black institutions of higher education within such close proximity of one another, this gave the city an essence of middle class Black students who wanted better for themselves. Even though the Black students were there to better themselves and family with furthering their education, it did not stop people of other ethnicities from harassing the Black students and causing them grief.

This documentary was made so that a light could be presented on the actual events of that evening from multiple sources and to grasp a greater understanding of the events as they unfolded. In addition to that, this film also unveils the truth that the city is still attempting to hide this historical event from the city, as the students do not learn about it in their history books and classrooms.

According to a study conducted by Pew Research in 2016, about 6 in 10 teenagers claim that more reformations are needed in order for there to be more equality in America, however the other 30 percent says that it is enough. With that same data, 4 in 10 Blacks are doubtful the country will ever make those changes.

The truth is in the data and the statistics, and it is prevalent that these issues in America are not going by unnoticed.

As a generation, this is the first time that a generation has not had to actively fight for their rights pre-Trayvon Martin, where a light was begin to show on the inequalities and how unfairly Blacks are treated in America. This was also able to be done because of the technological innovations like cell phones, social media and the internet, which allows news from non-reporters to travel just as swiftly as journalists.

“The commemoration ceremony doesn’t really change for me each year. Sometimes we have the drums, the drape drums. The band will March, some years we have more of the families of those that were killed.” Reflecting on the commemoration ceremony as it progresses over time, Cleveland recounts past experiences.

“Mr. Thomas got shot seven times. Right here in his mouth and got all of his teeth knocked out. He went into the military and had a tough time.” Thomas was a participant in the demonstrations to desegregate the All-Star bowling alley, and ended up having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also classified as PTSD. Thomas was put out of the military because of his PTSD and began drinking and getting involved with drugs. After finding a church home, he dropped to his knees and decided to dedicate his life to God.

Each year SCSU has a ceremony where it commemorates the actions of the Orangeburg Massacre. This ceremony takes place so that it reminds the students and community about what happened and how there has been progression, but there is so much further to go. In addition to that, it also has the tone that pain is real and time cannot elude a wrong that was never acknowledged.

Amber Watts, a former student of Savannah State feels, “Ceremonies such as this one is so vital to our community. Not only does it show resilience and a strong background of self-awareness, but it also adds assurance to our those who came before us, like our ancestors, that we have not forgotten the sacrifices they made for us. Furthermore, this shows how strong we are and how we are not going to give up until there is justice. The men and women affected by this tragedy, dead or alive, deserve that much I believe.”

Allowing for a couple moments of silence to see if it brought upon any more thoughts, Watts begins, “The Orangeburg Massacre is just another example of Black people in America wanting justice and equal rights, but instead left with a bigger injustice to deal with.”

In 2017 the victims and the families of victims are still waiting for justice so their loved ones can rest in peace. Cleveland Sellers is still fighting for the Orangeburg Massacre to be acknowledged as what it was, and for it to be implemented into the school systems. When driving past the bowling alley, there are no historical markers nor anywhere else in town.

Emanuel Mitchell, a former Clafin University student said, “I didn’t learn much about the Orangeburg Massacre while in college, but I grew up in Orangeburg so I learned all about it in middle and high school, and it’s a sad part of history that is definitely overlooked by most.” Taking a moment to reflect, “You know it’s only acknowledged as a SCSU thing unfortunately… It’s something that should definitely be taught at Claflin and surrounding schools, but I don’t believe it is. There’s just not enough notice of it, as far as anniversaries, etc.”

Through further protests and events it is the hopes of Cleveland Sellers that this will not be the reality of students for much longer. Urging people to continue to come together is more than remembering what happened, but hopefully it will bring recognition so it could alter the future.

Created By
Ashleigh Montford
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