History of the Orangeburg Massacre
What started as a simple protest against the segregation practices of a local business owner, soon took a violent and tragic turn, resulting in the death of three young men. Becoming known as the Orangeburg Massacre, the night of February 8, 1968 forever scarred the history of Orangeburg, South Carolina University, and the people who were so intricately involved. South Carolina State University invites you to join us as we commemorate this tragic event and continue to promote healing and tolerance in our society.
The Day of the Massacre
On the night of February 8, 1968, nine South Carolina Highway Patrolmen fired their weapons into a crowd of black students protesting on the front of the campus of South Carolina State College. Three students were killed and twenty-eight were injured. Virtually all of the young men were hit in the back by shotgun pellets and bullets. The shootings were the culmination of lengthy protests against the vestiges of segregation and the persistence of racial discrimination in Orangeburg, especially the “white only” policy of the All-Star Bowling Lanes.
This tragedy that became known locally and across South Carolina as the “Orangeburg Massacre” received little national attention at the time. Coming just two weeks after the North Korean government captured the U. S. Navy vessel, The Pueblo and its crew, and only three days after the Tet offensive began in Vietnam, the Orangeburg Massacre was largely ignored by print and electronic journalists. Subsequent investigations and trials did little to arouse more than regional interest, and it wasn’t until years later that the event would be recognized as monumental.
The traumatic events of 1968—President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to be a candidate in the election, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy’s murder, the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Richard Nixon’s political resurrection in the November election—largely relegated the events in Orangeburg to obscurity; the public could only handle so much news. Only the publication of The Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Nelson and Jack Bass helped to keep the story alive. However, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover managed, with some success, to suppress circulation of the book because he believed it was too critical of the Bureau.
In the past five decades, historians have—with only a few exceptions—ignored the Orangeburg tragedy while rarely failing to devote attention to the student uprisings at Berkeley and Columbia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. Nor is the Massacre included among the exhibits at the new Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. South Carolina State University is dedicated to bringing this piece of cultural history to the forefront of our current political climate.
The events in Orangeburg did not fit neatly into the anti-war protests of the late 1960s, and nor did they find a place in the bloody confrontations over civil rights that occurred in Alabama and Mississippi earlier in the decade. But those events do fit into the tradition of student activism on the campuses of South Carolina State and Claflin, and in the Orangeburg community.
A dozen years before the Massacre, students at SCSU went on strike, refusing to attend classes, in protest against both the actions of the White Citizens Council in Orangeburg and the authoritarian policies of the College President, Benner C. Turner. In February, 1960, just days after the sit-ins began at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, South Carolina State and Claflin students launched their own sit-in at the local Kress lunch counter.
On March 15, 1960, students peacefully marched to challenge segregation in Orangeburg only to be met by law enforcement officers and fire hoses. Nearly 400 were arrested. Non-violent protests and demonstrations continued month after month in the early 1960s. In 1967, students went on strike in “the Cause,” staying out of class in opposition to the autocratic policies of long-time President Benner C. Turner. Turner subsequently retired.
The events of February, 1968, can be meaningfully comprehended only as a part of the larger and longer tradition of student activism on the Claflin and South Carolina State campuses.
For decades after the Massacre, the black and white communities in Orangeburg remained deeply divided over the meaning and memory of what happened on February 8, 1968. For most Orangeburg residents, the Massacre was a divisive issue and source of persistent racial animosity.
In 1999, on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Massacre, more than 250 black and white residents of the Orangeburg community called for racial reconciliation in a plea published in the Times and Democrat on February 7, “Orangeburg, Let us Heal Ourselves. . .” That call had a dramatic and positive impact. In 2001, Gov. Jim Hodges expressed “deep regret” on behalf of the state at that year’s ceremony. Then, in 2003, Gov. Mark Sanford issued a written apology. At the 40th anniversary observance of the Orangeburg Massacre in 2008, Mayor Paul Miller apologized to the City of Orangeburg.
While racial divisions have certainly not been eliminated in the United States, they have been reduced as a measure of reconciliation has taken place. The Orangeburg of 2018 is a far more harmonious community than the Orangeburg of 1968. South Carolina State University invites you to join us in commemoration of this tragic event. This cultural history event will provide you with the information you need to know about the past, as well as optimism for the future. RSVP to our Wednesday, February 7th and Thursday, February 8th events below to ensure adequate seating.