The recent decision by the FBI not to reopen the investigation of the Orangeburg Massacre is regrettable. An official report from the bureau would help shed light on that event, in which the FBI played a central role.
The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department recently joined in an effort to re-examine a number of "cold cases" from the civil rights era. Indeed, while some of these hate crimes occurred 40 to 60 years ago, some of the answers as to who was responsible lie just below the surface, waiting to be discovered.
But many of the witnesses to those crimes and others who have vital information are aging, and the sooner these investigations are conducted, the better. Many South Carolinians had hoped that the FBI would help set the record straight on the Orangeburg Massacre.
In February 1968, three unarmed black students were killed and 27 wounded by state troopers firing into a crowd of students massed on the grounds of S.C. State University in Orangeburg. No rocks were thrown by the crowd, and no bullets were fired by demonstrators, as claimed at the time. Those wounded appeared to have been shot from behind as they tried to run away.
After the shootings, an FBI investigation resulted in charges against nine state troopers. But all were acquitted after a jury trial.
The only person convicted of anything related to the incident was Cleveland Sellers, who was one of those wounded. Sellers at the time had been accused of being an outside agitator.
He served seven months in prison but was pardoned 25 years later. Sellers now is director of the African-American studies department at the University of South Carolina.
He recently said he thinks the refusal of the FBI to reopen the case is part of a continuing cover-up. While that might be hard to substantiate, the FBI's reluctance to do what it can to help create an accurate picture of what occurred that day is puzzling.
A thorough investigation of the events leading to the deaths of the three students could help dispel the discontent that remains, especially in light of the state's silence on the matter over the past 40 years. A bill has been filed in the state Legislature this year to open a review of the events that triggered the shootings.
The bill would create a five-member commission that would have subpoena power to investigate the incident. When the investigation is complete, the commission would send its findings to the governor and the General Assembly.
But the bill remains in the House Judiciary Committee, and there is no guarantee lawmakers will consider it when the Legislature reconvenes next year. We hope they will.
While no official cover-up may have occurred, as Sellers suggests, a conspiracy of silence and a willingness to shove this matter under the rug has prevented a full and official account of what occurred. The FBI should reopen the case and the state should proceed with its own investigation.
FBI should play a role in shedding new light on Orangeburg Massacre.
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