On May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine others were injured when National Guard troops fired into a crowd of Vietnam War protestors on the campus of Kent State University. The shooting of the students caused national uproar, impacted the course of American politics, and spurred the writing of countless articles and books both in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and in the years that have followed (Lewis & Hensley, n.d.). Additionally, school children around the United States still receive lessons detailing the shooting of the student protestors. Conversely, the murder of 3 young men and the wounding of 27 young men and women in a similar incident on the campus of South Carolina State College over two years before the Kent State shooting has received limited exposure to this day.
In early 1968, Orangeburg, South Carolina was a "staunchly conservative, rural-oriented town of 20,000 located forty miles southeast of the state capital at Columbia" that also happened to be the home of two predominantly black colleges, South Carolina State College (now University) and Claflin College (Nelson & Bass, 1970, p. 3). Despite the presence of the two black colleges and the fact that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed four years earlier, the only bowling alley in Orangeburg, All Star Bowling Lanes, was still a "Whites Only" establishment. On February 5, 1968, a group of about forty students marched to the bowling alley to protest the continued segregation. The protest that evening ended without incident when the chief of police ordered the bowling alley to close for the night, but the students returned to the bowling alley the following evening starting a chain of events that would end in tragedy a few days later (Nelson & Bass, 1970, pp. 18-30).
On February 6, events escalated rapidly in the parking lot in front of the bowling alley culminating in a violent altercation between police and students. Policemen used their riot sticks as clubs to force the students to retreat from the parking lot. During the melee, multiple individuals at the scene witnessed a female student being clubbed by one officer while she was restrained by another officer. State College students and administrators alike were angered and frustrated by the fact that the protest had escalated to violence and were particularly troubled by the beating of the young woman who was already being restrained (Cram & Richardson, 2009).
For two days after the altercation at the bowling alley, tensions remained high on campus and in the town. The governor responded by sending state law enforcement and National Guard troops to Orangeburg. On the night of February 8, students lit a bonfire on the street in front of the entrance to State College and taunted the city and state law enforcement officers who were positioned all along the front of campus. Students also threw objects, including rocks and pieces of wood, in the direction of the officers. The fire department was called in to douse the bonfire, and students retreated onto campus as the officers moved toward the bonfire along with the fire truck. Students continued to throw objects as they retreated. Patrolman David Shealy was hit in the face by a banister railing and appeared to be injured quite severely. Some officers spread the false rumor that Shealy had been shot (Nelson & Bass, 1970, pp. 46-78).
Nervous officers shouldered their guns as a large group of students pressed back toward the location of the bonfire as the flames died down. Suddenly, the cold night air crackled with the sound of gunfire. Frantic students dove to the ground, ran toward the interior of campus seeking safety, or sought protection behind trash cans and other barriers. Many of the students didn't believe at first that the officers could really be firing at the crowd. However, their doubts were removed when they heard their fellow students cry out in pain or felt the buckshot from the officers' shotguns tear into their own flesh. The shooting lasted approximately 8-10 seconds according to eyewitness testimony, but some of the students said it felt like an eternity of chaos and fear. The scene was described by several individuals as resembling a war zone, except only one side was firing (Cram & Richardson, 2009).
At least 30 young men and women suffered bullet wounds. Nearly all of the students were struck either from the back or side, and some even received wounds in the soles of their feet as they fell to the ground in search of cover. Henry Smith, a State College sophomore, Samuel Hammond, a State College freshman and halfback on the football team, and Delano Middleton, a high school student whose mother worked at State College, all died as a result of their wounds (Nelson & Bass, 1970, pp. 83-98, 125-137).
In the aftermath of the shooting, misinformation was abundant. South Carolina Governor Robert McNair made an official statement that the incident occurred off campus and blamed the events on "black power advocates" (Beacham, 2007). The Associated Press initially reported that there was "a heavy exchange of gunfire" although the AP photographer who was on the scene later said he was misquoted and that he didn't hear any shooting coming from the campus (Nelson & Bass, 1970, pp. 99-100). The claims of several officers that they heard "small arms fire" coming from the campus before the shooting were not supported by any other individuals on the scene and no guns, ammunition, or spent cartridges were found among the wounded students or on the campus in the area of the shooting (Cram & Richardson, 2009).
Investigators determined that only 9 of the nearly 70 armed officers in position to fire upon the students did so (Bass, n.d.). Why did those nine men fire into the crowd while the rest of the officers held their fire? Ramsey Clark, the United States Attorney General in 1968, described the officers' actions and intent in the following way:
They committed murder. Murder...that's a harsh thing to say, but they did it. The police lost their self control. They just started shooting. It was a slaughter. Double-ought buckshot is what you use for deer. It's meant to kill. One guy emptied his service revolver. That takes a lot of shooting. The [students] are running away. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow! My God, there's a murderous intent there. We are lucky more weren't killed. (Beacham, 2007)
In December 1968, the nine officers were charged in federal court with imposing summary punishment without due process of law. "At the time the offense was a misdemeanor and carried a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $1,000 fine" (Neslon & Bass, 1970, p. 183). Despite overwhelming evidence that the nine officers fired upon unarmed students, a federal jury took less than two hours to acquit the officers (Nelson & Bass, 1970, pp. 185-221).
In fact, the only person who received legal punishment in relation to the events in Orangeburg was Cleveland Sellers, a 22 year-old State College student who had previously served as the national program director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Sellers was at the bowling alley on February 6 during the violent confrontation between police and students and he was among the wounded on campus the night of February 8, but he was not a leader of the demonstrations. However, that mattered little to Governor McNair, state law enforcement chief Pete Strom, and others who wanted to preserve the image of South Carolina and blame the entire incident on an "outside agitator" and "black power advocate." Sellers was charged with a whole host of crimes, including inciting a riot and assault and battery with the intent to kill (Beacham, 2007). A state jury convicted Sellers on a riot charge in the fall of 1970 and sentenced him to one year in prison. Sellers served seven months of his sentence before being released for good behavior (Bass, n.d.). On July 20, 1993, twenty-five years after what is now often referred to as the "Orangeburg Massacre," Sellers received a pardon from the state of South Carolina (Beacham, 2007).
Three young lives were stolen and countless others were forever altered by a few moments in time on a February night in 1968. We cannot go back and save Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond, or Delano Middleton, but we can remember them, honor them, and learn from the tragedy that robbed the world of three young men in the prime of their lives. As Jordan Simmons III, a survivor who was wounded in the "Massacre," said, "We must do our part to ensure the second and third generations among us, as well as future generations, remember what happened on these grounds" and "throw our collective resources into preventing future occurrences even remotely comparable to the 'Orangeburg Massacre'" (Gleaton, 2013).
Jim Crow Museum
Bass, J. (n.d.). The Orangeburg massacre. Retrieved from:
Beacham, F. (2007). The legacy of the Orangeburg massacre. Retrieved from:
Cram, B. (Producer/Director) & Richardson, R. (Producer/Director). (2009).
Scarred justice: The Orangeburg massacre 1968 [Motion picture]. United States: California Newsreel.
Gleaton, D. (2013, February 9). A fateful night: 45 years later, survivor says 'forgiveness sets us free'. The Times and Democrat. Retrieved from:
Lewis, J.M. & Hensley, T.R. (n.d.). The May 4 shootings at Kent State University: The search for historical accuracy.
Unpublished manuscript, Kent State University, Kent, OH. Retrieved from http://dept.kent.edu/sociology/lewis/lewihen.htm
[Published in revised form by The Ohio Council for the Social Studies Review, 34(1) (Summer, 1998), 9-21.]
Nelson, J. & Bass, J. (1970). The Orangeburg massacre. New York: The World Publishing Company.
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