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The Orangeburg Massacre: Atmosphere leading up to the civil rights-era crime

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Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles

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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 joined by subject matter expert Dr. William Heine to discuss the social, political and racial environment leading up to the February of 1968 racial 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 the Late Edition Crime Beat Chronicles a Lee Enterprises podcast. I'm Nat Cardona. On this podcast, you'll hear true crime stories as told by journalists from regional newspapers across the country. Our next set of episodes are about the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968, and my guess you probably never heard of what happened there back in 1968, Orangeburg was home to two Black colleges and it had a large Black population.

However, the majority of the economic and political power was still held by the minority White population. It's February 8th, 1968. Roughly 300 protesters from South Carolina State College and Claflin University staged a nonviolent demonstration after a Black Vietnam War vet was denied access to a local bowling alley, one of the few segregated facilities left in town. The violence began with police officers beating two female students, and it ended with 28 students injured and three murdered.

We'll start with setting up social, political and economic climate at that time. Joining me on this episode is Dr. William Heine, a former professor of history at South Carolina State University for more than 40 years. He's also a published author and one of the authorities of the 1968 massacre. First things first is tell me a little bit about yourself and who you are.

Well, as you know, my name is William Heine. I taught history at South Carolina State for many years, beginning the year of the Orangeburg Massacre and retired a few years ago. In the meantime, what had been South Carolina State College became South Carolina State University in the early 1990. So there's sometimes a little bit of confusion about the label or the correct name of the institution.

But I did teach history there, and and wrote a history of the institution as well that came out a couple of years ago. I grew up in Ohio and then in 1967 came to South Carolina on what I thought would be a temporary teaching assignment for someone who was on leave that year. And I would teach there a year and then move on.

But that person did not come back after that year. So I stayed a second year and then I decided that and as much as I didn't have a page at the time that I either ought to get a degree in history or move on to something else. So I went back to graduate school at Kent State in Ohio and stayed there for three years working on a doctorate and then, with no other positions available, returned to South Carolina State in the fall of 1972 and stayed there for the remainder of my academic career.

And involved, as you might expect, on a variety of projects, some enterprises dealing with history and other subjects and our campus organizations and and the usual litany of things that college faculty members get engaged in.

Sure, sure. And the main thing we're talking about today is obviously the Orangeburg Massacre. South Carolina State has done a remarkable job. Whether it be, like you said, faculty or students in commemorating the event every single year. But, you know, the reason we reached out to you is because Lee Enterprises owns Orangeburg as a Democrat. Right. So the idea here is that you'd be able to provide context that is not available through the small amount of articles that were written throughout the years about it and, you know, hopefully provide more context than what a Google search can provide, because you Google this and it is actually pretty disheartening at how few links there are to

information about what had happened and who was killed and everything that the fallout, all of that. So ideally, I'd like you to bring me back to you know, you said you you were you were you were there in 1967. This happened in the beginning of February of 1968. Can you describe what Orangeburg was like at that time? What's going on in the community, what the demographics are, that kind of thing?

Orangeburg is the the county seat of the county that has the same name, Orangeburg County, in terms of size as the second largest Korean in South Carolina, stretching across the Midlands in terms of its history since the early 19th century. Orangeburg just consisted of a population of a Black majority are going back to the expansion of slavery in the early 19th century, and the county still has a Black majority to the present day.

In 1967. Orangeburg, with its Black majority, had not a single Black officeholder in local or state government. The State General Assembly was entirely white in 1967 68. The County Council, the City Council, the sheriff, the Chief of police. Virtually every public officeholder elected or appointed was white at that time, and most of the businesses that were white owned in town employed only white people except for their janitorial crew.

There weren't any Black retail clerks at Penney's or at the smaller stores around town. Nevertheless, it has had and continues to have two Black colleges. Claflin, a methodist Center tution founded during Reconstruction in 1869 and then South Carolina State, founded as the only Black public higher education institution in South Carolina, a four year institution founded as a land grant as a kind of counter to Clemson, which was the white land grant institution that had been founded.

And just a few years prior to that in the early 1890s. So you had this community made up of largely a Black population, but it was a white power structure in terms of politics as well as the economy.

Okay. And fair to say that there would be a lot of young Black youth as well because of the schools, correct?

Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And there was a fairly substantial with with the presence of two institutions, a substantial number of middle class Black people who worked in administration or faculty, as well as the public schools that were at the Times. For all intents and purposes, they were still segregated. There were still two high schools when I arrived in and Orangeburg, the Black High School, Wilkinson High School and the White High School, Orangeburg High School.

They they did merge a couple of years later into one one high school. But that was the situation all through the 1960s.

Yeah, and that's the perfect segue way there, because in 1964 we officially have the desegregation in the South. But, you know, coming up to 1968, the beginning of February, there's this bowling alley, all star lanes, right? And it is yeah, it is owned by Mr. Floyd, who says no Blacks allowed. This is my white only policy, yada, yada.

Can you explain the context behind that? Like how that could still be because some people might not understand, even though officially 1964 is a few years before desegregation. But here we are, it's still not that much different, right, in 1968. So please go into that, if you wouldn't mind.

Well, Orangeburg still lagged behind despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And the prime example became the bowling alley. And the proprietor, Harry Floyd, who had literally built the bowling alley earlier in the sixties, operated as a white only facility. And it was his contention that he could exclude Black people, that the bowling alley was not covered under the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it didn't engage in interstate commerce.

And that was a matter of legal controversy at the time. But that was his position. In the meantime, there were several other facilities in town that remained white only. There were some local laundromats that were white. Only the two drive in movie theaters that existed on the fringe of town. I would not admit Black people to those drive in facilities.

Most of the medical doctors who were white still maintained a separate waiting rooms for white and Black patients. The local hospital had not yet accepted Medicare that had been enacted in 1965. So there were a number of issues, most of them revolving around race as well as class that still divided the community. Four years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act that was supposedly brought in desegregation of public facilities.

Sure, that was quite the lag time. As you mentioned, we needed. Take a quick break, so don't go too far. So speaking of February 5th, 1968, we have the small group of students who go into the bowling alley and things ensue there. Can you talk a little bit about that? That was kind of the precursor to what happened on February 8th, ultimately.

Well, there actually it goes back before that fact. You could easily go back several years. That part of the hidden history of Orangeburg and civil rights happened back in 1960. And then in through the early 1960s, there were massive civil rights demonstrate in Orangeburg by students of the two to college. I mean, hundreds of people were marching in the spring of 19 60, and large numbers of them were arrested.

And then as the weeks and months passed, re-arrested in many cases. And on March 15, 1960, 400 students out of a thousand, roughly, who marched that day were arrested. And in Carson raided. And the fire department hose them down that chilly March day in 1968 years before the massacre. And there's a whole history of that. And I might might point out, incidentally, that one of those who was arrested, that that March day was James Clyburn, now a prominent congressman and spokesman for the Democratic Party and in Washington.

And so he's very familiar with not only those demonstrations, but up through the the massacre. So you had this history of engagement, student participation, student nonviolent protest in Orangeburg. So when you get to 1967 and 68, you've got this bowling alley just down the street from the campuses and people at least some people wanted a bowl and certainly most students were really weren't interested in bowling.

They came from rural South Carolina. There were no bowling alleys and most of the small towns in and South Carolina. But some were interested, like John Stroman, who was from Savannah. He genuinely liked to bowl and wanted to bowling and couldn't get in the bowling alley. And then there was another student, James Davis, who had been in the Air Force for a number of years and came back and started college in Orange Bowl games in his mid or late twenties.

He wanted a bowl and then was infuriated that he'd served in the Air Force, went down to the bowling alley and they wouldn't let him in to bowl. And that was a wish. Weeks prior to January and February. And there was an initial effort to to bowl. And Harry Floyd, the owner, was adamant he was not going to admit Black people.

So they they followed kind of switched trigger on Floyd. One afternoon in January, they got one of the few white students at South Carolina State, a fellow named John Blocker, and they persuaded him to go down by himself and bowl. And he went in and and got away and told Harry Floyd that several of his friends were coming along any minute.

And not long after that they showed up, but they were Black friends and Floyd threw them all out at that at that point. And that set the stage then for February 1st, when they come down again, there's a confrontation there. The students are removed from the bowling alley. They show up again the next night, Tuesday, February 6th. There's an even larger number of students and a larger employment of Black excuse me, of law enforcement officers there.

And a couple of students are arrested after a big plate glass window was shattered on that Tuesday night. And also a law enforcement officer had some sort of caustic liquid thrown in his in his eyes that caused some eye damage. And that leads to the arrest. Several dozen students are in the parking lot outside a bowling alley. And then the police wait in and began to push students around.

A fire truck shows up and some of the students, the older students from that community knew about the fire hoses from earlier and the demonstrations. And the situation escalated. It was tense, but it wasn't until the point of any physical contact, aside from the the arrests that had occurred and the city authorities meeting with a couple of college officials, Pete Butler among them, were able to get the arrested students released with the understanding that everyone would go home.

Well, at some point, the local police began to hit students as they retreated and word got back to the campuses that students were being beaten, especially young women. And at that point, then more students rushed downtown and the situation nationwide threatened to get out of hand. If not, there was some property damage to stores and businesses between the campus and the bowling alley.

But there were an aside from the students who were beaten, especially the young ladies, and there was no damage, there was no looting and nothing was taken. But there were several hundred, if not several thousand dollars worth of damage done to grass windows and to some automobiles that are new are locked down there. But it seems to me anyway, that what really set the students off as much as anything was having their their fellow students, especially the younger women beaten that night and that that galvanized the two campuses and solidified the protests and the anger directed toward law enforcement, as well as the political leaders in the in the community.

Sure. So that brings us to February 8th of 1968. We have that on campus protest of, you know, a couple of hundred students. Would you be able to paint the picture of what the protest was intended to be? Would you be able to speak on that.

Whether there were two nights, the event, the night of the confrontation down at the bowling alley with the fire trucks and the students being beaten? That was that Tuesday night. Then Wednesday night, there was an effort to keep the students on the campus and the college president, Michelle Nance, urged students don't leave the campus. Furthermore, by that time, National Guardsmen and a large contingent of state highway patrolman had arrived in Orangeburg and they weren't going to let them off the campus anyway, fearing that if students were to go back downtown, that they would emulate people who had protested at in Watts and in Newark and in Cleveland and in Detroit, the urban riots that occurred

in 1965, 66, 67. Now it looked like Orangeburg might be incinerated by these Black power advocates. These Black nationalists are led by this young man who had been involved in ethnic named Cleveland sellers, who'd been in town for several months by then. So they were confined to the basically confined to the campus that Wednesday, February 7th. And there were a series of incidents throwing things out on the highway as the campus, some two young white men drove onto the campus in spite of the fact there was supposed to be a curfew and that caused a sensation of some sort there.

But that was a relatively calm night that set the stage for Thursday, February 8th, 1968, where, again, students assembled in front of the campus and protested and threw things at the the highway patrolman that were lined up along the edge of the campus there with National Guardsmen well behind them, across the street, across the railroad tracks. On the other side of the two campuses there was it was dark, it was chilly.

I was not a well-lit area by any means. It's hard to know how many students were out there. They kind of came and went over a period of time, eight, nine, 10:00 that evening. There were some women students out there. They came and went. A bonfire was started on the little street in front of the campus there. The fire department was called to put out the fire.

It was a mixture of sort of above festival, along with anger and bitterness directed toward the highway patrol, which at the time was all white. They were just in the process of hiring their first two Black highway patrol officers in early 1968. So you had a contingent of all white law enforcement officers, well armed and Black students by ten, 1030 that night, all male, but they were unarmed except for sticks, stones and some pretty vile language directed at the even at the highway patrolman.

And that set the stage for the shooting.

Just a quick side note before we get into that. How did the National Guard get involved? Just clarification purposes here.

Well, the governor, Robert, there, I was convinced that he had a seriously dangerous situation in Orangeburg because he was convinced that this young man, Cleveland Sellers, had incited these students, especially that to resign, he'd been in town, as I mentioned, for several, several months and got to know a lot of students. There was an organization on the South Carolina state campus known as Backbeat Ask the Black Awareness Coordinating Committee.

He worked with them. There were probably 30 or 40 students out of 2000 who belong to Black. But Governor McNair was convinced that that these campuses, and especially South Carolina State with Cleveland sellers in town was a hotbed of Black nationalism, radicalism, and that they were eager to virtually incinerate Orangeburg if they weren't controlled. So he dispatched additional highway patrolman from around the state and the local National Guard was called up and they were available as well.

But they were not on the campus or near the campus. Probably the closest National Guardsmen was 200 or more yards away. And I might point out that the National Guard had weapons, but they weren't loaded on the island. People had weapons, mostly shotguns, and they were load.

And that's where we'll wrap up things this week. Make sure you subscribe to the podcast so that you don't miss the next episode where Dr. Hine details what happened that February night in 1968. Thanks for listening to Late Edition Crime Me Chronicles. I'll see you soon.


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