In My Town, an Undying Issue

By Eugene Robinson
Sunday, April 29, 2007

ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- Right near the elementary school playground where we used to chase each other in circles, spinning of a different sort was being done Thursday night.

In the "spin room" at the South Carolina State University student center, Hillary Clinton's people were trying to convince journalists that their candidate had won the first Democratic presidential debate. Barack Obama's people were trying to convince us that he was the winner. John Edwards's people were explaining how the Clinton and Obama people had it all wrong.

The fact is that no candidate really won or lost the debate. Setting aside Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska who seemed to be reprising Peter Finch's performance in the movie "Network" ("I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"), the rivals for the Democratic nomination were remarkably polite and uncommonly unified in their basic message: We're not George W. Bush, and we genuinely want to win the White House this time.

The only clear winner was Orangeburg. It has been 39 years since my home town got so much attention. On Feb. 8, 1968, police fired into a crowd of demonstrators protesting a segregated bowling alley, killing three unarmed black students -- Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond Jr. and Delano Middleton -- and wounding 27 others. Two of the men had attended S.C. State, a historically black college founded in 1896; the other was a student at Wilkinson High School, which was the "black" high school in Orangeburg.

The killings became known as the "Orangeburg Massacre." They were every bit as egregious as the Kent State killings two years later, although they remain lesser known.

Thursday night, after the debate, the leading Democratic candidates for president of the United States were invited to a reception at the S.C. State athletic arena, which is named the Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center in honor of the slain students. Yes, things have changed a bit.

I spent my elementary and junior high years at Felton Training School on the S.C. State campus, across the street from the student center and right next to Dukes Gymnasium, where the Bulldogs used to play their basketball games before the new arena was built. For me, coming home to cover the debate was one of those time-warp experiences that leave you awestruck.

The original Felton schoolhouse is long gone, as is the lunchroom, which was a separate building out back. The old playground was surrounded by a hedge filled with honeysuckle, and in the springtime we Felton kids used to suck the nectar from the blossoms, even though our parents and teachers told us not to. Our playground is a parking lot now, and last week it was occupied by television trucks that belched exhaust fumes. For an instant, though, I could have sworn I got just a whiff of honeysuckle.

Dukes Gymnasium still stands. The pavement out front was our roller-skating venue, and I can't tell you how many pairs of glasses I broke in falls and crashes. Last week, the wide steps of Dukes Gym served as risers for the fantastic S.C. State marching band, which provided a "Drumline"-style soundtrack during the debate festivities.

The student center, where we used to get the best french fries in the world, had been turned into the media center for the debate. On an elaborate temporary set outside the building, I was doing television commentary Thursday when I looked down and recognized one of the white police officers providing security for this big-deal event on a black campus. He and I had gone to high school together.

You see, I went to Orangeburg High, the "white" school, a few years after it had integrated. We black students were still a small minority, even after some whites had decamped to a private all-white "academy" across town. I was a sophomore when the Orangeburg Massacre took place.

My family's house is close to the S.C. State campus. The 1968 protests lasted several days, and I remember waking up one morning and looking out the window to see a dozen police cars lined up across the street. The officers had their rifles drawn. They were looking for one of the protest organizers, who had been staying in a house a couple of doors away. By the time they arrived, happily, he was gone.

It would have been good if at least one of the Democratic candidates had taken the occasion Thursday to talk about race in this country -- how far we still have to go, how very far we've come. But no one did.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company