On the night of Feb. 8, 1968, Cleveland Sellers raced to the front of the South Carolina State campus, where black students protesting a segregated, all-white bowling alley in town had lit a bonfire.
Tensions had been escalating all week in the South Carolina town of Orangeburg.
“I could see policemen in white helmets,” Sellers said in a recent interview. “They had weapons drawn. I knew it wasn’t a good picture. I felt the responsibility to tell the students, ‘Let’s move out of here. Let’s go back to the dorm or auditorium.’ ”
Then, without warning, police opened fire on the black students.
“They said it was eight, nine or 10 seconds,” Sellers recalled. “I felt like it was eight hours. … Bang, bang, bang. All these rifles and shotguns and pistols. Some of the weapons police used were brought from home. They had shotguns filled with buckshot. Buckshot is for big animals, deer and cattle. They had one of the most powerful shotgun shells that one could imagine to shoot students.”
Amid the gunshots, Sellers tried to get on the ground.
A bullet ripped through his left armpit.
“It was hot. You know you are shot because it burns. You feel it. I just kept moving,” Sellers said. “I looked back and saw the police weren’t coming up the street. I decided to go back over and try to move some of the students. I knew we had to move those kids from out there.”
When the barrage of buck shots stopped, three black students lay dead. Twenty-seven students were wounded — most of them shot in their backs, the back of their heads and the soles of their feet.
The students fatally wounded: Samuel Hammond Jr., an 18-year-old freshman and halfback on the football team, shot in the back; Henry Smith, an 18-year-old sophomore, and Delano Middleton, a high school student who had been sitting on the steps of a dorm on campus waiting for his mother to get off work so he could walk her home.
The shooting, the first mass police shooting on a U.S. college campus, became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
As horrible as it was, the massacre on the historically black college campus barely made national news. The Orangeburg Massacre occurred two years before the police shootings at Kent State University, where on May 4, 1970, four white students were killed and nine were injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War.
Ten days later, police opened fire on students at Jackson State University in Mississippi, fatally shooting two students and wounding 12.
“We contend Kent State would not have happened if the lessons of Orangeburg had been learned,” said Bakari Sellers, the son of Cleveland Sellers. “The pages of my state’s history are stained with blood. The state has made a conscious effort to rewrite or leave out completely the history of the ‘Orangeburg Massacre.’”
Jack Bass, who in 1968 was a UPI reporter covering the South Carolina State protest, said: “The night of the shooting, AP reported it as exchange of gunfire. But AP got the story wrong. There was no exchange of gunfire. There was no gunfire from the students. The shooting occurred at 10:38 p.m., the deadlines for the newspapers on the East Coast. The only story they had was from the AP, but they had it wrong.”
By midnight, the National Guard had called a news conference.
“They said two students were killed instead of three. There was that much confusion going on,” said Bass, co-author with Jack Nelson of the book “The Orangeburg Massacre,” published in 1970.
J. Edgar Hoover attacked the book because of its criticism of the FBI.
“The book didn’t get back into print until the late 1980s with Mercer University Press,” Bass said.
“Doesn’t anyone give a damn about the Murder in Orangeburg!” a 1968 flier asked.
The events leading up to the “Orangeburg Massacre” began Feb. 5, 1968 — a Monday — when black students tried to desegregate the all-white “All-Star Bowling Alley” in Orangeburg. Its owner, Harry Ford, refused to admit black students in defiance of federal law.
On Tuesday, students again tried to desegregate the bowling alley, and again were turned away. Police arrested 20 students, according to a 1968 Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) report.
Word of the arrests reached campus, and 600 students marched to the bowling alley, demanding the release of the students who had been arrested. More than 150 police officers responded to the protest.
“Police unlocked trunks of their cars and they had two- to three-foot wooden batons,” Sellers recalled. “They began to issue them out to the highway patrolmen and the plainclothes officers. And they waded into the crowd and began swinging the batons widely.”
Police hit female students across their heads and backs.
“It was a terrible situation for the students,” recalled Sellers, who recently retired as president of Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C. “Twelve coeds ended up in the hospital with concussions and lacerations to the scalp from being beaten across the back and shoulders.”
Tensions further escalated on campus at South Carolina State, which had a rich history of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
On that Wednesday, Gov. Robert E. McNair ordered 250 National Guardsmen and more highway patrol officers.
Students met with city officials to “discuss the violence and police brutality directed toward them the previous night,” SNCC reported. But their demands were not met.
On Thursday, tensions rose further when “whites drove through the campus, shooting at students and into the buildings, while the armed police stood on campus silent and watched the shooting. A campus guard was shot and wounded,” according to the SNCC.
Later that night, students — all of them male — built a bonfire at the campus gate “in an effort to stop the movement of shooting whites from driving through the campus,” SNCC reported.
Police responded, but not to protect the black students. According to reports, police targeted Sellers, who had been involved in the Freedom Summer campaigns in Mississippi and had recently been national program director of SNCC.
“It had been reported by Dr. Charles Thomas, president of the Orangeburg NAACP, and by members of the faculty of South Carolina State that they heard the National Guard were ordered to hide on South Carolina State’s campus until SNCC worker Cleve Sellers appeared,” according to the SNCC report.
Law enforcement advocates “believed you had to remove Black Power elements dead or alive,” Sellers said.
Bass said rumors of “black power threats” permeated the town. “Merchants armed themselves and tensions continued to mount. Sellers told a reporter Thursday afternoon, ‘Everyone is looking for a scapegoat.’”
When a firetruck arrived on the campus, someone threw an object that hit a firefighter in the face, Bass recalled.
“About five minutes later, as taunting students who had retreated into the campus interior headed back toward the bonfire, a patrolman fired a carbine into the air,” Bass wrote, “intended as warning shots. Instead, it triggered a fusillade of police gunfire.”
The shooting began at 10:38 p.m. and lasted at least eight seconds.
Sellers recalled that when he ran to the front of the campus, police started firing.
“When Cleve Sellers appeared,” the SNCC report said, “they were then ordered to fire on the students in an attempt to kill Cleveland. The National Guard charged into the crowd of students, firing at random. The students seeking cover fell to the ground. The Guard continued firing at the students who were laying on the ground, face down. All those hit were shot in the back and feet.”
Sellers was arrested after he was treated at the hospital for his wound.
He was the only person ever convicted and imprisoned relating to the “Orangeburg Massacre.”
“They took me into the emergency room,” Sellers recalled. “Then they said, ‘You are under arrest.’ ”
Sellers was taken to the courthouse and charged with five felonies. “I was charged with setting the fire, breaking and entering; inciting a riot, assault with intent to kill a police officer. They said I had taken a banister and hit police in the head. I had no idea what they were talking about. I said, ‘Let me call my attorney.’ I knew I was going to be the scapegoat for them.”
Sellers was taken to the local prison.
“They took me to the ‘Pink Castle,’ a Confederate-built jail. They took me in there and locked me up. They actually opened the penitentiary at 12:30 that night so I could be processed and put in. When the inmates came out, they told me I was on Death Row.”
In 1970, Sellers was convicted and spent seven months in prison.
“I got one-year hard labor,” Sellers said. “We tried to appeal everywhere we could.”
Of the 66 patrolmen on the scene, Bass wrote, “nine later told FBI agents they had fired at students after hearing shots. Some fired more than once. Eight fired riot guns, short-barreled shotguns designed to disperse a crowd or mob, not to maim or kill. The ammunition issued for the riot guns was lethal buckshot, shells used by deer hunters that contain nine to 12 pellets as large as .38 caliber pistol slugs. A ninth patrolman said he fired his service revolver six times as ‘a spontaneous reaction to the situation,’ and at least one city policeman fired a shotgun.”
Nine patrolmen who fired on the students were tried in 1969; they were acquitted of all charges.
In 1993, Sellers, who eventually returned to school, earning a doctorate at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and a master’s degree from Harvard, was pardoned.
Ten years later, Gov. Mark Sanford became the first governor of South Carolina to issue a formal apology for the “Orangeburg Massacre.”
But South Carolina never opened a formal investigation into what happened that night.
“The only person to ever go to prison as a result of that night’s violence was my father,” said Bakari Sellers, who was elected to the South Carolina state legislature in 2006 and served until 2014.
“Those culpable were never found guilty. Governor McNair’s only punishment was not being named as vice president in 1968 because of the blood on his hands.”
In 2007, Sellers introduced a bill in the South Carolina state legislature, seeking an investigation into the 1968 massacre.
“But that was as useful as a screen door on a submarine,” said Sellers, who is now a lawyer and a CNN commentator. “What you begin to understand clearly is South Carolina’s refusal to deal with the litmus test of Orangeburg is indicative of many places in the United States who refuse to deal with race and inequality.”
Read more Retropolis: