ORANGEBURG -- Every day, Eugene Booker passes a monument to the state's most violent civil rights confrontation, registering in memory the faces of slain students Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton.
For Booker and others of his generation at S.C. State University, the portraits are potent reminders of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, the tragedy that began when police fired into a crowd of protesting students, killing three and wounding dozens.
Yet, the violence and the times that spawned it often seem as remote as the stories of his grandmother who helped raise him.
She still reminds this first-generation college student of the way things used to be, Booker said, "about how she had to walk to school in the snow."
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But Booker's own life seems far removed from the era of segregated schools and black disenfranchisement that defined her life and passed from existence before he was born.
When Booker and his friend discuss job prospects, "I think it's more economics. We're looking more past race. When we talk about jobs, we're competing against the best of the best schools."
Pulled back in time
As S.C. State marks the 40th anniversary with events that include mock picketing and a bonfire today and a solemn commemoration Friday, there is an undertow that pulls students back to that time.
"In a sense, you want to learn from it," said Student Government Association president Jeremy Rogers, a senior from Dillon. "I think they (the students) are hungry for answers."
This college generation, who came of age in a new century, examines the era that changed the South through a different lens.
"To them, it is way back in the past, but there is a fascination with it," S.C. State history professor William Hine said. "I think it has finally gotten a grip on the consciousness of students."
At a time in America when a black man running for president is both historic and inevitable, today's S.C. State students embrace a post-racial attitude unthinkable four decades ago.
The year 1968 is "not today's world," Taryn Richardson, a junior from Summerton, said as she walked to class last week.
Shots, then mayhem
The barriers were obvious and infuriating, especially for students who wanted to bowl at Orangeburg's only bowling alley, the All Star Bowling Lanes.
As whites-only signs fell throughout the South, the owner refused admission to blacks, saying it would ruin business.
For several days and nights, angry students from S.C. State and nearby Claflin University clashed with state troopers and National Guard troops who had massed in Orangeburg.
On Feb. 8, about 200 students gathered around a bonfire on the edge of campus, throwing debris and taunting police. One student tore a banister off a nearby house and threw it, striking an officer.
Then, suddenly, mayhem. In a furious volley that lasted no more than 10 seconds, officers fired into the crowd, buckshot striking fleeing students in the back, sides and soles of their feet.
Hammond and Smith died in the college infirmary, as did Middleton, a 17-year-old high school student who hoped to play football for S.C. State. His mother, a college maid, was at his side and read him the 23rd Psalm. His decision to swing by the campus to see the protest cost him his life.
South Carolina was shocked. Then-Gov. Robert McNair called it one of the state's saddest days and wrongly blamed the melee on outside black militants.
Cleveland Sellers, a native of nearby Denmark and veteran of civil rights protests, was convicted of rioting, a charge he vehemently denied. Nine highway patrolmen were acquitted of federal charges.
Years later, Sellers, now director of USC's African-American Studies Program, was pardoned. But he, Hine and others still seek a full explanation.
The FBI this year declined to reopen the case, but Sellers and Jack Bass, a co-author with Jack Nelson of the definitive account of the Orangeburg Massacre, have called for a commission to hear testimony from those who were there.
"I think such a report would be very healing," said Bass, a former reporter who teaches at the College of Charleston.
Orangeburg Mayor Paul Miller is reluctant to weigh in on such matters, believing the community is working to heal.
"I think Orangeburg has come a lot further than a lot of people give it credit for," he said.