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The Orangeburg Massacre: A peaceful protest met with violence, who was held responsible and how the victims are remembered

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In 1968, a peaceful civil rights protest turned deadly in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Known as the Orangeburg Massacre, it became known as one of the most violent events of the civil rights movement, but details aren't widely known. Host Nat Cardona is again joined by subject matter expert Dr. William Heine to discuss how peaceful protestors were met with violence, what happened to the victims, and who was- or wasn't- held responsible for the bloodshed. The two also discuss how the victims are remembered today.

Listen to Episode 1 of the Orangeburg Massacre

Read more here and here and here.

Episode transcript

Note: The following transcript was created by Adobe Premiere and may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies as it was generated automatically:

Welcome to Late Edition Crime Beat Chronicles. I'm your host Nat Cardona. In the last episode, we discuss the climate leading into the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre in Orangeburg, South Carolina. If you haven't listened to that episode, please go back and listen. There's a link in the show notes to help make it easier for you to find. In this week's episode, I'm again joined by Dr. William Heine. He's a former history professor at South Carolina State University. We discuss in detail how the peaceful protest by students was met with violence from law enforcement. We also go into who was or wasn't held responsible for the deaths of three students and the wounding of more than 20 others. And with that, let's get to it.

So you have this pressure cooker of tensions for the handful of years nights before the actual event happens. What's the tipping point? What's the the other shoe that drops to turn from. You know, a lot of tension to violence. What were the what was the thing that happened that night? That's that's that's it. There was nothing. I mean, they were they're they're fronted each other and went back and forth or time. As I mentioned, there was a bonfire that was was put out.

People continued to throw things at one point and officer of the highway patrol, a man named Shelly, got it. Looked like he'd been shot almost literally between the eyes. He went down at least semi-conscious for a period of time, bleeding profusely, and it appeared as if he had been been shot from the direction of the students. As it turned out, he had not been shot.

He'd been hit with a heavy piece of timber. It had opened a wound on his forehead. They took him off after the hospital and at least another 10 minutes or more elapsed after Shelly was hit with the with the timber. A lot of people were at the time and sense under the mistaken impression, well surely got hit and then the highway patrolman opened fire.

It didn't happen. It did not happen that way. They opened fire with no announcement that they were going to fire. Nobody said lock and load or know you have one minute or and 80 seconds to retreat or we're going to open fire. It wasn't announced. They just simply started shooting. Not all the highway patrolman shot. There were 66 of them aligned along the embankment and kind of curled around at right angles toward an unoccupied house next next door to the campus there.

Some opened fire, some did not. Most of the students were hit in the back as they turned to run from the shotgun blast and more than 30 were were hit and three were killed and at least 28 were injured, some superficially, some very seriously. Note that there was no ready, aim, fire. It was just a spontaneous opening of a fire.

The later it was, it was determined that apparently one of the highway patrol officers had fired a warning shot into the air with his sidearm and others not realizing that opened fire. You're hearing a a weapon go off. That's been about the best determination of how the highway patrolman came to open fire that night, roughly 10:30, 10:45 on February eight.

Okay. So you have a bunch of these young people wounded. Three young men ultimately are massacred or killed. Can you talk a little bit about those three young men, if you don't mind? Well, two of them were college students. One was a high school student and they were there as much out of curiosity as a determination that they're going to be involved in protests.

Henry Smith was probably the most active of the students. He wanted to be there. He did consider himself an activist. He was upset with conditions in the community and on the campus. And there's no question of his involvement, his determination to be a part of this. And the other college student was a freshman football player named Samuel Hammond from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

It was there are of interest and curiosity. He was there with several other football players and athletes as well. He was shot and died shortly after that. Then there was Delano Middleton, who was the high school student. His mother worked on the campus and he kind of came up to see what was happening on the front of the campus.

And he was ahead and fatally injured as well that night. He was he was local. He was from the Orangeburg area and Smith was from Marion, now probably 100 miles. He came from a poor family over there. And as I mentioned, Samuel Hammond was an athlete from Fort Lauderdale, although his parents, his father was from are down the road from Orangeburg and Bamberg, South Carolina.

And so but they had connections and roots to the local area as well. Okay. Unfortunately, they're killed and other people are wounded. And then what? Like what is the what does that rest of the night like what happens pretty much immediately after? Well, it was chaos initially on the campus. I mean, there was fear, one, that this was just a prelude to an invasion by law enforcement that were going to head head on and through the campus and maybe continue shooting or occupy the campus.

No one knew what was going on. There was a absence of communication of any time. They were taking wounded students out the back side of the campus and going to the to the hospital by a back route. The college infirmary was filled with bleeding students of was great fear, anger, trepidation about what? What, what, what's next. I hear and it took a number of hours for this to settle down in the meantime, that the accounts that were out through the media were, well, incomplete and false as it turned out as well.

Associated Press tape sent out an account that there had been an exchange of gunfire on the campus with students shooting at highway patrolman and patrolman shooting back. And that was absolutely incorrect. And it was it was never a corrected by AP either. So the headlines, such as they were that appeared the next day, was that there had been an exchange of gunfire and the governor and the local authorities were pretty well convinced that they'd saved Orangeburg from some kind of massive black nationalist uprising.

And as regrettable as it was that students got shot, that this was necessary to protect the community, protect the lives and property of people in Orangeburg. And the governor maintained that and continued to maintain that as the days and weeks and then months and even years went by. After that, he was convinced that he'd acted properly and that he had helped to preserve the security and preserve what threatened to become a much worse situation from exploding into that.

And that is, to a large extent our the conventional story that was heard in the aftermath of the massacre, except for the black press that did cover the black newspapers at the time, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier and our Defender, Jet magazine. I mean, they covered it, But as far as most people in the black community were concerned, that was just cold blooded murder by armed highway patrolman, all white who shot into a crowd of black young men protesting on their own campus unarmed at the time.

So there are two versions that prevailed for many days, weeks and months, even years to the present day about what actually happened that night in 1968. Sure. We needed to take a quick break, so don't go too far. Just so listeners understand, there were out of the 70 or so patrolmen, nine were charged with shooting at protesters, but ultimately none were convicted of anything, totally just wiped clean.

No one held accountable for the murders or the shootings. Anything, correct?

That is correct. The U.S. Department of Justice tried to indict the nine highway patrolman who did admit shooting into the crowd of students. A federal grand jury in Columbia in the fall of 1968 refused to indict them on felony charges and the Department of Justice and ended them on misdemeanor charges, criminal information.

And they went on trial the following spring of 1969 in federal court in Florence, South Carolina. And a jury of ten white people and two black people found them not guilty and that they felt their lives were in danger and therefore they were justified in shooting into this crowd of students, even if the students weren't armed with weapons.

And so the nine Howard patrolmen were indeed acquitted. And then a year after that, Cleveland Sellers was brought to the bar of justice in Orangeburg, and he was charged with an assortment of charges, including inciting a riot. There. As it turned out, most of the charges were abandoned and he was finally convicted, not for what happened on the night of February, but on the night of February six at the bowling alley of inciting the crowd down there.

And he was sentenced to a year in state prison in the Bradford River Federal Byrd River State Correctional Institution. He served nine months. He was released early on our good behavior. So he's the only one who was penalized for the events surrounding the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968. And I should point out that he was one of the people shot and wounded that night as while he was hit in the upper arm by a shotgun pellets there.

So he had to face the indignity of going to jail and being shot as well. I'm really, really hoping to still hear back from him, to hear just his retelling of everything that happened. But thanks for laying out all out. So, yeah, ultimately, he's the only one who's punished for anything that had happened that night. And at the end of the day, no justice was served for the three young men that were killed.

And, you know, here we are today. It's going on. What if we're 55, 56 years later? Like, how did we get here to where this major event that actually was so integral to the civil rights movement and so violence on top of it? How did we get to the point where this is just a blip on the radar in history, especially in terms with this?

Do you have any input on that? Well, the circumstances under which it happened in in 1968 was not well covered at that time. And 1968 was a very tumultuous year in American history. At the time of the year of the massacre in early February, the Tet Offensive was breaking out in Vietnam. The Vietnam War absorbed the attention of many, many Americans and the media shortly before that, and in January, an American naval vessel, the Pueblo, had been captured by North Korea and its crew taken hostage.

And then only weeks after the massacre, the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, announced that he would not be running for reelection in 1968. And days after that, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was shot in Memphis, Tennessee. And then a couple of months after that, Robert Kennedy was shot after the Democratic primary in California, shot in Los Angeles, and he died a day or so later.

And the the the massacre got lost in this series of events. And to that, it happens in a small rural town in South Carolina. And then most importantly, there was a group of black students and it simply did not draw the attention or the coverage of most people, especially most white people. It did, as I mentioned, draw the coverage of the black press and black students at other HBCU, other historically black colleges, universities, North Carolina, and to Morehouse, Howard in Washington DC.

But it was largely overlooked and there was no story in Time magazine. There was a short story in Newsweek at the time, the media, in terms of television, I gave that very, very little attention. And what little attention it did give, it disappeared a very quickly. So most people never even heard of it. It didn't get into most of the history books.

And two years later, when the shootings occurred in at Kent State, it just exploded across the front pages of newspapers and on all of the major networks, CBS and NBC and ABC at that time. And so virtually everyone in the aftermath of Kent State knew about the shootings of the four students at Kent who were all white and hardly anyone had heard of the students who had been shot at South Carolina State who were black, which and thank you for bringing that up, because with your affiliation with the College, for my understanding, student organizations have done a pretty good job of remembering what had happened there.

I understand that there are their statues of the three young men on campus, or is that just sort now that's on campus. There's a memorial plaza there the year after the massacre in 1969, a small granite marker was placed there with the names of the three young men. And then 30 plus years after that, and there were bronze tablets established around that granite marker with the names of the 28 young men who were wounded there.

And then three years ago or so, a a brick monument was created, built there, and then two years ago, there were busts of the three young men placed within that brick and lighted monument, the bust and Smith and Delano Middleton and Samuel Hammond are there. So there is a monument on campus that has expanded over the years.

Okay. That's good to know. Thank you for clarifying all that. One of the last things here is, you know, we can't we can't change the past in how it was covered and portrayed and how no justice was done and all of that. But what would your, you know, the take away? You would hope for our listeners to get out of this or for people to learn from this?

Do you have anything that you'd like to kind of part with? Well, you would hope that people would learn that you don't have law enforcement shoot into a crowd of unarmed people. But the fact of the matter is they did it and do it again and then shot into a crowd of protesting, protesting students at Kent State in May of 1970.

And unfortunately, too often our law enforcement officers have taken it upon themselves to not only enforce the law, but apparently act as a jury and convict and punish those who they see protesting, demonstrating, are breaking the law in front of them. So that's one lesson that has regrettably not been learned very much, if at all, in the years and decades since then.

The other regret as far as I'm concerned, and many other people were involved with the massacre and those who survived it, I there was never any formal investigation of what happened and why it happened. There was a presidential commission formed after they can say, killings on campus violence. Richard Nixon appointed the former governor of Pennsylvania, William Scranton, and they did a thorough investigation of what happened at Kent State, what happened at Jackson State that pretty much ignored Orangeburg to try to get at the problems that led to the shootings at Jackson State and Kent State in May of 1970.

There's been other state investigations of of racially involved incidents everywhere from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1923 to Rosewood, Florida, in 1922. More recent developments, but there was never a state or federal investigation of what happened in Orangeburg. And our effort to try to get into the underlying factors that contributed to this to try to bring some increased clarity. I don't know that would bring closure to this.

It might it might help it might assist in that. But it has never happened. And I in terms of the foreseeable future, it doesn't look like it's going to happen, but it does.

But in theory, it could still happen. That would be the. certainly. Okay. It's never too late. No, I mean, they investigated Tulsa almost 100 years after it happened. And Rosewood right, as well. Tulsa was 1921 and Rosewood was 1923. And state of Florida and state of Oklahoma did investigate those appointed people. They set aside relatively small amounts of money on this and then tried to undertake a thorough examination of the events that had occurred many decades before.

Now we're more than a half century since Orangeburg. There's still no investigation, and there seems to be little inclination on the part of the political leaders to undertake such an investigation, even though it would be of of modest cost. The attitude seems to be, well, we don't need to bring that up again. I don't don't let us put the scab on that wound again.

Let's just let it let it go. We can move on. And I will live in a better, happier future without digging into the past and stirring up the animosity and hard feelings once again. So we don't need no, we don't need an investigation like that and quit harping on it and quit suggesting that we do. And in fact, it's about time you stopped having those ceremonies in February 8th to commemorate this.

That only inflames people in the community and people get upset with this and would rather not. It happened, I should say that I helping with that has been the local newspaper, the The Times and Democrat. They have done a lot in recent years to try to bring about some some healing and some effort to recognize what happened in the community as a serious, serious tragedy and loss of life and the injuries that occurred.

And they've tried to bring people together in terms of healing with efforts to try to bring community leaders together, to agree, at least not to be so emotionally invested in this, that they that they have a hard time even speaking with each other. So The Times and Democratic Kathy Hughes and Lee Harder have have helped a lot there.

Is there anything that you would like to add before we parted ways? You know, I would I would repeat the what I've almost repeated over the years ad nauseum now about the need for an investigation. We're losing people. In the past year, two of the young men who were wounded in 1968 have have died since the fall of 1922.

And that's regrettable. But as the cliche goes, better late than never. So I would I repeat, a call for an investigation won't answer all the questions. It won't satisfy everyone. But I think it will help bring about an understanding of one of the most traumatic events that occurred in South Carolina in the 20th century. So on that note, I would would close and that's a great note to close on.

I really appreciate your time this was honestly a way more information than I actually expected. So huge. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much. And that's where we'll end the show for today. If you're interested in more details of how the victims of the massacre are being memorialized, please check out the articles linked in our show notes.

And don't forget to hit that subscribe button so you don't miss what's coming next on Crime Chronicles. Thanks for listening.


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