(February 8, 1968). On the night of February 8, 1968, police gunfire left three young black men dying and twenty-seven wounded on the campus of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Exactly thirty-three years later, Governor Jim Hodges addressed an overflow crowd there in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Auditorium, referring directly to the “Orangeburg Massacre”—an identifying term for the event that had been controversial—and called what happened “a great tragedy for our state.”
The audience that day included eight men in their fifties— including a clergyman, a college professor, and a retired army lieutenant colonel—who had been shot that fateful night. For the first time they were included in the annual memorial service to the three students who died—Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith. Their deaths, more than two years before the gunfire by Ohio National Guardsmen that killed four on the campus of Kent State University, marked the first such tragedy on any American college campus.
The shooting occurred after three nights of escalating racial tension over efforts by South Carolina State students and others to desegregate the All Star Bowling Lanes. On Monday night, January 29, 1968, six black students entered the bowling alley. As planned, one of the college’s two white students had preceded them and was bowling when they entered. When the others asked for bowling lanes, they were told the bowling alley was private. Pointing to the white student, they asked how the bowling alley could be private when a schoolmate was bowling and he was not a member. The white student was ordered to stop bowling, and the students were told to leave. A week later, more than a dozen students returned to the bowling alley. This time bowling alley operator Harry Floyd called the police. The police chief and city administrator evaluated the situation, determined it was explosive, and ordered the alley to close for the night.
The next night at the bowling alley, some students voluntarily had themselves arrested in order to contest trespass charges. As volunteers were escorted to patrol cars, another student told hundreds attending a movie about the arrests. Students poured out of the auditorium and headed downtown. Highway patrolmen carrying riot batons joined local police in front of the bowling alley. One officer reported that he swung his baton and hit someone after a caustic liquid was thrown in his face. Other officers quickly joined in. By evening’s end, a policeman and ten students received hospital treatment for injuries, and others were treated at the campus infirmary.
Students returning to campus vented their anger on white-owned businesses, throwing bricks, rocks, and sticks of firewood. In the wake of major urban riots the previous year across America, the state responded as though it were a major civil disorder. Total insurance claims for damages that night, however, amounted to less than $5,000.
On Wednesday, Governor Robert E. McNair called in 250 National Guardsmen and additional highway patrolmen. The day began with city officials meeting with students and staff in the campus auditorium. Students hooted when officials were unable to answer specific grievances. Official attention soon focused on twenty-three-year-old Cleveland Sellers, who had returned to his native South Carolina as third-ranking officer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after several years on the front lines of civil rights struggle in Alabama and Mississippi. Frustrated students that night pelted passing cars, and police blockaded the highway. Rumors of “black power” threats spread, merchants armed themselves, and tension continued to mount. Sellers told a reporter Thursday afternoon, “Everyone is looking for a scapegoat.”
The shooting occurred at 10:38 that night, after students lit a bonfire and a patrolman advancing to protect firemen was knocked down by a thrown object that bloodied his face. About five minutes later, as taunting students who had retreated into the campus interior headed back toward the bonfire, a patrolman fired a carbine into the air, intended as warning shots. Instead, it triggered a fusillade of police gunfire. The Associated Press misreported the episode as “a heavy exchange of gunfire,” but evidence later revealed that while some objects were thrown at police, there was no exchange of gunfire. The students were unarmed. Of sixty-six patrolmen on the scene, nine later told Federal Bureau of Investigation agents they had fired at the students after hearing shots. Some fired more than once. Eight fired riot guns, short-barrel shotguns designed to disperse a crowd or mob, not to maim or kill. The ammunition issued for the riot guns was lethal buckshot, shells used by deer hunters that contain nine to twelve pellets as large as .38 caliber pistol slugs. A ninth patrolman said he fired his service revolver six times as “a spontaneous reaction to the situation,” and at least one city policeman fired a shotgun. The gunfire lasted at least eight to ten seconds. No National Guardsmen fired weapons.
When the fire truck arrived to put out the bonfire, Sellers left a room on the campus to see what was happening. He was shot in the armpit. After being identified at the hospital by the sheriff’s only black deputy, he was taken to the courthouse, charged with a variety of crimes, and speedily taken to the state penitentiary in Columbia.
At a noon press conference the next day in Columbia, Governor McNair called it “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina” and expressed concern that the state’s “reputation for racial harmony has been blemished.” Three years later, in his final address to the legislature, McNair referred to what happened at Orangeburg as “a scar on our state’s conscience.”
In the months that followed the shooting, after a grand jury refused to indict the nine patrolmen, U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark tried the patrolmen on criminal charges. A jury took less than two hours to acquit the patrolmen on grounds of self-defense. In an interview years later, one of those defendants, Joseph Howard “Red” Lanier, Jr., after serving as Highway Patrol commander, expressed remorse about what had happened and acknowledged that the patrolmen had been “poorly trained.”
Meanwhile Sellers was convicted in 1970 of “riot” for his actions at the bowling alley on Tuesday and served seven months in minimum security. He went on to earn a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to go with a master’s degree from Harvard he received before going to prison. He later returned to South Carolina, and in 1993 the University of South Carolina hired Sellers as director for its program in African American studies.
Bass, Jack “The Trial of Cleveland Sellers.” New South (fall 1970): 18–22.
Bass, Jack, and Jack Nelson. The Orangeburg Massacre. 2d ed. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996.