By Barney Blakeney
February 8 marked the 50th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre. It slipped past me – not the annual observance, but the recognition that this year was the 50th anniversary. Like so many observances, somethings become automatic. Feb. 7 was my father’s birthday. I went through the day without a thought about it. He would have been 110 had he lived. Last year marked 50 years since his death. I’m sure, like those personally touched by the Orangeburg Massacre, we think about our absent loved ones every day. But the hallmark years are special.
For the victims of the massacre I’m sure the event is irrevocably etched in their psyche. I can’t begin to imagine what it means to them. And certainly I can’t imagine what it means to the loved ones of the three young men killed that cold February night. A couple of years later I worked with Ralph Dawson, one of the injured victims. I never got to know Ralph closely, but I’ve always felt the event had a profound impact on him.
Since the anniversary I’ve again sought to learn more about the incident. I’ve watched several television broadcasts. They all convey horror. Accounts from students and others who were there depict two nights of sheer terror, starting with beatings at the bowling alley Feb. 6 and culminating with the killings on campus two nights later.
What I find interesting is how it all started. One of the things I saw indicated the tragedy had roots that extended beyond the students’ attempt to integrate the bowling alley, and included earlier protests of the school’s administration which students felt was not addressing their concerns. Student protest in South Carolina was nothing new. In 1961 eight students from Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill and a representative of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) were arrested in an attempt to desegregate the lunch counter at a local department store.
By 1968 America was changing, but a lot of communities were caught in a time warp, stuck in segregated limbo. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 meant nothing in Charleston where ‘whites only’ still was the social norm. And in Orangeburg where despite being the home of two major Black colleges which provided tremendous finance to the town, civil rights didn’t even exist! Then as now, it was all about knowing your place and staying in it.
In Feb. 1968 Black students in Orangeburg decided they no longer would stay in their place. They paid for that decision dearly. Two nights before the murders at South Carolina State College eight students, beaten with batons by S.C. Highway Patrolmen, were sent to the hospital after a confrontation at Orangeburg’s ‘white only’ All Star Bowling Lane. According to accounts one female student was held by two patrolmen as a third beat her. One student, Emma McClain, said it seemed as if the officers were trying to teach them a lesson.
I guess that lesson was to ‘stay in your place!’ But like any good student, those at State College asked the ever-reaching question – why? They were college students being taught to use their brains, being taught to think outside the box of racial segregation and subjugation. And they were young! Too young to know that the world of oppression and second class citizenship they were trying to break free of would beat them down, and yes, kill them to maintain its stranglehold on them and those who would come after them! By midnight Feb. 8, S.C. State College students Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr. and Henry Ezekiel Smith along with Wilkerson High School senior Delano Herman Middleton had been killed as proof of how far the authorities were willing to go to keep those students in their places. One of them, I don’t know which, was shot seven times. Another 28 students had been shot as they ran from the gunfire unleashed by nine highway patrolmen who fired into the crowd of students. I think it’s important to note that of the 66 patrolmen at the scene, 53 did not fire their weapons. Four others fired into the air. That says to me, most people are decent and want to do the right thing.
We remember the Orangeburg Massacre each year and since, have asked for some type atonement from state officials. The unfortunate reality is South Carolina never stopped the killing after February 8. State sanctioned gunslingers like those so willing to fire into a crowd of Black children take innocent Black lives every year. Our community just sent one, Michael Slager, to a Colorado country club the other day.
Thankfully, America has changed since 1968. The unabashed slaughter has been discontinued, but the slaughter continues nonetheless. Socio-economic racism is as rampant today as it was in 1968. Even racial segregation still is widespread. ‘White only’ schools, businesses and communities still exist. And South Carolina State University remains a central figure in our state’s epithet of racial inequality.
I asked former SCSU Board of Trustees Chairman William Small what he thought about the racism that produced the Orangeburg Massacre considered in the context of today’s institution. Here’s what he said, “The Orangeburg Massacre stands as a virtual metaphor for the challenges that SCSU has faced from its inception until now … The primary objective of the demonstration was not to desegregate facilities in Orangeburg, instead the primary objective was to call attention to the unequal facilities that existed at SCSU.
“What was central to understanding the State of South Carolina’s treatment of SCSU then, as well as now, is the fact that the State of South Carolina has always resisted the prospect of SCSU developing as fully competitive university within the community of state universities. This was obviously true at its inception and one must ask, where is the evidence that the State’s attitude in this regard has ever changed. In the meantime, SCSU is being permitted to bleed to death from the wounds of the perpetual Orangeburg Massacre.”
In other words, the massacre hasn’t stopped!