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Search continues for reconciliation and truth

From left, Dr. Leonard McIntyre, Interim President of S.C. State, Dr. Henry Tisdale, President of Claflin College, and S.C. State Student Government President Jeremy Rogers light a torch commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre on Friday.
From left, Dr. Leonard McIntyre, Interim President of S.C. State, Dr. Henry Tisdale, President of Claflin College, and S.C. State Student Government President Jeremy Rogers light a torch commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre on Friday.

ORANGEBURG -- They are visibly older now, these survivors of the Orangeburg Massacre, but they came together Friday still seeking answers and searching for closure to the state's deadliest civil rights protest.

Forty years after three students were shot to death and 28 wounded on the S.C. State University campus, the group of graying survivors was joined by hundreds of others to remember those who died -- Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton.

They joined in a call for continuing examination of the tragedy.

The three young men "became martyrs for the state of South Carolina," interim S.C. State president Leonard McIntyre said. "A community and a nation remain bruised by this occurrence."

The 40th anniversary commemoration was punctuated by calls for reconciliation.

As speakers acknowledged the decades of progress since, S.C. State history professor William Hine drew a portrait of Orangeburg and South Carolina in 1968, when African-Americans were largely excluded from positions of power.

Scars still exist

But Cleveland Sellers, the only person convicted in connection with the violence that chilly winter week in 1968, warned that many carry emotional and physical scars from the confrontation.

"In some ways, that rawness will never go away," said Sellers, who was pardoned in 1993 and is now director of USC's African-American Studies Program. "The memory of the Orangeburg Massacre remains an open wound on the body politic of the state."

He and others have pushed for a state panel to investigate why deadly force was used against the unarmed students, who had clashed with police for days over the segregation of the All Star Bowling Lanes near campus.

Sellers said his son, Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, who was elected in 2006, is working with the Legislative Black Caucus and Orangeburg lawmakers to promote a bill calling for such an investigation. That bill currently is in sub-committee.

Georgeanne Richardson, a distant cousin to Delano Middleton who was 7 at the time of the tragedy, came to her first commemoration Friday.

"I never felt moved to come because I didn't think it would make a difference," she said.

Now, Richardson believes it will. Formal apologies from former Gov. Jim Hodges in 2001 and Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 have helped heal the community, she said.

But, she added, "I still believe the truth needs to come to light."

Silence and reverence

Forty years ago, a bonfire set on the edge of campus proved to be the catalyst for a night of horror.

But on this sunlit afternoon, the crowd walked reverently and silently from the Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium to the circular monument nearby, where a flame was lit in memory of the victims.

Among them: John Stroman, the Orangeburg man who decided he had the right to bowl in his hometown and began the protests to integrate the lanes.

Ken Jefferies, now living in Toronto, returned to the campus for the first time in 40 years. He remembered sitting in his dormitory, hearing the pop, pop, pop of the gunfire that terrible night.

The next day, he said, "you could smell the gun smoke in the air. There was a whole feeling of sadness and gloom." A few days later, Jefferies and five others channeled their frustration into an organized run from Orangeburg to Columbia.

On Friday, three wreaths of daisies graced the monument, which now includes the name of a 28th wounded victim, the Rev. John Elliott of St. George, who only recently had come forth to identify himself as a shooting victim.

At the conclusion, Elliott blessed the gathering.

"May it serve to help us heal our grief, our differences and the societal injustices of the day."

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