The Orangeburg Massacre: Causes, Events, and Aftermath

South Carolina Highway Patrol watches over two injured students, after a group of patrolman and National Guardsman charged a group of protesters at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg.
South Carolina Highway Patrol watches over two injured students, after a group of patrolman and National Guardsman charged a group of protesters at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg.

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The Orangeburg Massacre occurred on the night of February 8, 1968, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, when state police opened fire on about 200 unarmed Black student protestors on the campus of South Carolina State University. Predating the Black Lives Matter movement by nearly half a century, the Orangeburg Massacre stands as one of the most violent, yet least recognized events of the civil rights movement.

Fast Facts: The Orangeburg Massacre

  • Short Description: A series of protests and demonstrations in Orangeburg, South Carolina, primarily on the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically Black institution. The massacre was one of the bloodiest—but most overlooked—incidents of the U.S. civil rights movement.
  • Key Players: Deceased shooting victims Samuel Hammond Jr., Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton; South Carolina State Police, and Governor Robert E. McNair
  • Event Start Date: February 8, 1968
  • Event End Date: February 9, 1968
  • Location: Orangeburg, South Carolina, U.S.

Racism in Orangeburg, South Carolina

During the early 1960s, the civil rights movement finally began to see gains thanks to the non-violent protest techniques taught by Martin Luther King Jr. As civil rights activists and students across the South challenged the Jim Crow era vestiges of segregation, the emerging technology of television allowed all Americans to witness the often deadly response to these peaceful protests. Growing public outrage over events such as police attacks on Black school children in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, helped President Lyndon B. Johnson win passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1968, however, while Orangeburg was home to two all-Black colleges and a majority Black population, the town—like many towns in the South—remained largely racially segregated, with social, economic, and political power still exclusively in the hands of its minority White residents.

Orangeburg was no stranger to protests. In March 1960, students from South Carolina State and Claflin College staged a protest and sit-in at the lunch counter of the downtown S.H. Kress department store. Attacked with tear gas and clubs by police and sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses, some 400 protesters were arrested, including S.C. State student Jim Clyburn, who went on to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993 to represent South Carolina’s 6th congressional district.

In 1963, nearly 300 students were jailed and beaten after they tried to enter the segregated Sumter Theater in an Orangeburg shopping center. Among them was 11-year-old Ella Scarborough, who was elected as at-large Mecklenburg (Alabama) County commissioner in 2014. 

The All-Star Bowling Lanes Incident

All-Star Triangle Bowling Alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
All-Star Triangle Bowling Alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Ammodramus/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Five years later, the racial tensions that led directly to the Orangeburg Massacre escalated when local students tried to desegregate the All-Star Bowl bowling lanes in downtown Orangeburg. In 1967, a group of local Black leaders had tried to convince the bowling alley’s owner, Harry K. Floyd, to allow Black people. Floyd refused, incorrectly claiming that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to his establishment because it was “privately owned.”

 On February 5, 1968, about 40 South Carolina State students entered the All-Star lanes but left peacefully at Harry Floyd’s request. The next night, a larger group of students entered the lanes, where police arrested several of them. Angered by the arrests, more student protesters gathered in the parking lot. When the crowd broke one of the alley’s windows, police began beating the students—men and women—with batons, sending eight of them to the hospital.

Protests at South Carolina State University

In the three days following the All-Star lanes arrests, tension escalated. On the morning of February 8, 1968, the all-White city council refused to consider a list of demands from students calling for a community-wide ban on segregation. Stating that “Black power” advocates were threatening the peace, South Carolina Governor Robert E. McNair ordered the state police and National Guard to Orangeburg. By nightfall, National Guard tanks and over 100 heavily armed police officers had surrounded the South Carolina State campus, with nearly 500 more stationed downtown.

Some 700 black students marched on the South Carolina state house in protest of three black students killed at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg.
Some 700 black students marched on the South Carolina state house in protest of three black students killed at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Bettmann/Getty Images

In front of the South Carolina State campus, a crowd of about 200 students had gathered around a bonfire. A fire truck protected by several armed South Carolina Highway Patrol officers was sent in to put out the fire. As firefighters approached the fire, police officer David Shealy was struck in the head by a heavy wooden object thrown from the crowd. As the injured officer was being attended to, eight other officers opened fire on the students with rifles, shotguns, and pistols. When the gunfire ended 10 to 15 seconds later, 27 people had been wounded, most of them shot in the back while running away from the scene. Three Black men, Samuel Hammond Jr., Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton, were killed. While Hammond and Smith were S.C. State students, Delano Middleton was a high school student who had been sitting on the steps of a campus dormitory waiting for his mother when he was shot. 

National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets back up highway patrolmen who had fired into a crowd of black students on the campus of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.
National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets back up highway patrolmen who had fired into a crowd of black students on the campus of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Bettmann/Getty Images

Happening at the same time as the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War and as protests against the war were reaching their peak, the Orangeburg Massacre received little coverage in the press, and some of the coverage it did get was incorrect.

For example, the Hendersonville, NC Times-News reported that the students had been armed and fired at the police first. Though some of the officers later stated that they believed they were being shot at and had fired in self-defense, the reports proved to be false.

Aftermath and Legacy

The Black community was disgusted by both the killings in Orangeburg and the subsequent misleading media reports. Protests and demonstrations broke out in the streets around the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia. In a telegram to President Lyndon B. Johnson, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. stated that the deaths “lie on the conscience of [State Police] Chief Strom and the government of South Carolina.”

In a February 9 press conference, Governor McNair called the massacre “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina.” He went on to blame the shootings on “outside agitators,” and incorrectly said that the entire incident had taken place off-campus.

Orangeburg police accused 23-year-old Cleveland Sellers of being the outside agitator they claimed had incited the protesters. A native of nearby Denmark, South Carolina, Sellers had just left his position as program director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Due to his friendship with SNCC director Stokely Carmichael, whose demands for “Black power” had shocked White America, Sellers was already on the radar of local police.

Cleveland Sellers, a top aid to Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael (standing behind Sellers) in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, accused by police of inciting the Orangeburg Massacre.
Cleveland Sellers, a top aid to Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael (standing behind Sellers) in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, accused by police of inciting the Orangeburg Massacre. Bettmann/Getty Images

Wounded in the massacre, Sellers was arrested and charged with “inciting to riot” at the All-Star Bowl. Although several witnesses testified that Sellers had not actively taken part in the protest, he was convicted and sentenced to one year of hard labor. Twenty-three years later, Sellers was granted a full pardon from Governor Carroll A. Campbell Jr., but chose not to have his record expunged, calling it a “badge of honor.”

Of the more than 70 armed police officers involved in the Orangeburg Massacre, the U.S. Department of Justice charged only nine with abuse of power. At their trial, federal prosecutors accused the officers of carrying out summary judgment and punishment of the protesters without due process of law.” While they all admitted having fired shots, the officers claimed they had acted in self-defense. Despite no definitive evidence to support their claims, two South Carolina juries acquitted them. U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark would later say that the officers had “committed murder.”

An annual memorial service is held for the students from South Carolina State University who were murdered by state police during a 1968 civil rights demonstration.
An annual memorial service is held for the students from South Carolina State University who were murdered by state police during a 1968 civil rights demonstration. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In 2003, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford offered a written apology for the Orangeburg Massacre, and in 2006, Cleveland Sellers’ son Bakari was elected to the South Carolina Legislature from the 90th Assembly District, which includes Orangeburg.

Despite the apologies, the fact that no police officers were held accountable for the deaths of the unarmed Black students served to widen the racial divide in America and still resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sources and Further Reference