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Silence Cloaking Deadly Clash Is Broken

A South Carolina lawmaker seeks a public accounting of a 1968 civil rights protest that drew little attention despite three deaths.

May 23, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Two years before four white student demonstrators were killed by National Guard troops at Kent State University, a bloody confrontation with police left three young, black protesters shot dead -- and 27 others wounded -- on the campus of what was then South Carolina State College.

Unlike in the Kent State incident, what happened here received little outside attention. Even within South Carolina, the chaotic events of Feb. 8, 1968, were over the years met mainly with averted gazes from state officials and those who recorded state history.

But the long silence cloaking the episode, which has come to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre, is giving way to efforts to acknowledge it publicly, to understand how student protests against a whites-only bowling alley turned suddenly tragic, and, perhaps, to make amends.

In February, on the 35th anniversary of the Orangeburg incident, Gov. Mark Sanford apologized to the state's black residents, using language more forceful than the statement of regret his predecessor had offered two years earlier.

The apology has prompted black lawmakers to suggest reopening the shooting case, which involved civil rights charges and ended with acquittals in federal court for nine state police officers. The only person convicted as a result of the unrest was an activist, Cleveland L. Sellers Jr., who was convicted of rioting charges and imprisoned.

A bill before the state's General Assembly calls for an independent investigation into the Orangeburg shootings. A second measure goes further, proposing that the state compensate the victims and the families of the dead. Supporters say the state has culpability that has not yet been fully detailed.

"You don't apologize for something where there is no guilt," said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Columbia Democrat who is the main sponsor of the inquiry bill, which is still in committee.

Jackson said he is not seeking criminal indictments, just a full public accounting. "It's time, in my opinion, and in the opinion of others, to do an independent investigation," he said. "We will never bring closure until the facts are known."

Harold Riley, who was a student at South Carolina State and was wounded in the leg and hip, agreed. "It's not something that anybody's going to forget," said Riley, 54, a retired drywall finisher who lives in Greensboro, N.C. "We might as well put it out in the open."

Supporters of a state inquiry now say a fresh look might cast the protesters in a more favorable light than their depiction at the time by state authorities: as rioters who provoked police.

The growing attention to the South Carolina tragedy is in line with moves throughout the South to confront past violence and racial injustice by prosecuting dormant cases and commemorating key moments of the civil rights era.

The confrontation in Orangeburg came at the end of several days of demonstrations involving students at South Carolina State, which is now a university, and neighboring Claflin University -- both historically black schools. The students had grown increasingly militant in their calls for integrating All Star Bowling Lanes, one of the last segregated establishments downtown. The business' owner insisted that it was exempt from antidiscrimination provisions of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The protests unnerved Orangeburg, a largely white and conservative community.

During three days leading up to the shootings, according to news and eyewitness accounts, police had beaten several students, including women, fueling a sense of rising menace as protesters vandalized cars, set fires and pelted police and passersby with rocks and bottles.

Gov. Robert E. McNair dispatched squads of highway patrolmen and mobilized National Guard units to keep order around the campuses. Black activists, including Sellers, joined the students by Feb. 8. The jousting between students and police escalated. A meeting to air students' grievances before city officials seemed to only worsen matters.

By that night, about 100 students massed at the edge of the South Carolina State campus in a tense showdown with more than 60 state police, backed up by 45 National Guard troops. The encounter, centered on a bonfire, flared violently after a patrolman was struck in the face by a thrown piece of stairway banister.

Troopers opened fire with a revolver and shotguns that were loaded with buckshot -- normally used to fell game -- rather than less-lethal birdshot, according to officers' statements made later. Students scattered amid the gunfire, which survivors said lasted 10 seconds. They took cover where they could.

Riley said he huddled behind a trash can, but suffered minor wounds anyway. "If I'd had my head turned the other way, I'd be dead now," he said by telephone from his home. He said the shooting ended just as he remembered it starting, with the screech of a police whistle.

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