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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : Justice Finally Comes in the Orangeburg Massacre

August 22, 1993|JACK BASS | Jack Bass is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi

Last month, Cleveland Sellers and I celebrated his pardon by the South Carolina Probation, Pardon and Parole Board. Twenty-three years ago, Sellers had been a victim of Jim Crow justice, convicted of rioting in what became known as the "Orangeburg Massacre." In toasting the end of official denial of what had happened on the night of Feb. 8, 1968, and of the economic price he'd paid for an unjust conviction, we recalled the words of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965: "Even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice." Maybe so.

At the time, black students at South Carolina State College at Orangeburg were protesting segregation at the town's only bowling alley. Three nights of confrontation between them and a band of all-white patrolmen, armed with riot guns loaded with buckshot, were heading toward tragedy.

Sellers, 23, an officer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had returned to his native state of South Carolina to advocate the then-new idea of "black awareness" and to build opposition to the escalating war in Vietnam. The bowling alley hadn't interested him.

At 10:33 on that fateful and confused February night, the officers suddenly started shooting. It lasted 8 to 10 seconds. The shooting was triggered by a patrolman's firing into the air what he intended as warning shots as students who had retreated to the campus interior drifted back toward the periphery while firemen doused a bonfire.

Three students were slain, 27 wounded. Among the wounded was Sellers, who was walking from a dormitory toward the front of the campus when he was hit by buckshot. Police later arrested him at the hospital where he was being treated and charged him with several crimes, among them arson and attempted murder.

Unlike the far better-known Kent State shootings, where four students died, the gunfire at Orangeburg occurred in darkness, the victims were all black and the Associated Press misreported--and never corrected--the incident as "an exchange of gunfire." Most of the press largely bought the official line, and the story was quickly forgotten. It got a paragraph in Newsweek, no mention at all in Time.

I was in Orangeburg when the shooting occurred. I'd met Sellers a year earlier while working on a story for the Charlotte Observer. Jack Nelson, now The Times' Washington bureau chief, and I began looking into the circumstances surrounding the shooting, and, as a result of his investigatory work, we learned that the students were shot from the side or rear as they turned to fall or flee. "The Orangeburg Massacre," which we wrote in 1970, received considerable critical acclaim, but little distribution after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attacked it.

Two years later, I covered Sellers' trial on three riot-related charges that grew out of the Orangeburg massacre. By that time, he had earned his masters degree in education administration at Harvard. A federal jury had acquitted nine highway patrolmen of imposing summary punishment without due process of law.

After hearing the testimony of 10 prosecution witnesses, state Circuit Judge John Grimball remarked: "Nobody has ever put the defendant (Sellers) into the area of rioting on (the night of the shooting) with the exception that he was wounded, and that, to my mind, means very little."

He dismissed the charges of conspiracy to riot and incitement to riot, leaving only the misdemeanor charge of rioting for the jury to consider. Sentenced to a year in jail, he was released after seven months for good behavior.

It was not until late last year that the arc of moral justice began bending toward Sellers. On a trip to South Carolina last fall, I had visited Rhett Jackson, a longtime friend and owner of the largest book store in South Carolina. He is a past chairman of the state's Probation, Pardon and Parole Board and remains a member. During a visit a few weeks later, I told Sellers that I had learned a pardon begins with an application and asked if he was interested.

A few weeks later, I sent a two-page letter in support of the pardon application he had filed.

Meanwhile this year, by refusing to air an award-winning radio documentary on the Orangeburg Massacre, South Carolina Educational Radio unwittingly helped create a climate in which the state could overcome a quarter century of denial. Newspapers jumped on the network's defense of censorship, using the 25th anniversary of the shooting to make the term Orangeburg Massacre a part of the state's vocabulary. Former Gov. Robert E. McNair, who had branded Sellers as an "outside agitator" who was responsible for the student discord and later pushed for his prosecution, always had referred to the episode as the "Orangeburg incident."

On July 20, the pardon board voted unanimously to pardon Sellers after a staff investigation recommended it.

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