FBI plans to revisit Orangeburg Massacre

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Federal authorities will re-examine three civil rights-era cases in S.C.

By RICK BRUNDRETT
rbrundrett@thestate.com
Reprinted from The State newspaper, Columbia, S.C.

The FBI might reopen an investigation into the 1968 slayings by police of three black students at S.C. State College — known as the Orangeburg Massacre — and two other civil rights-era deaths in South Carolina.

The S.C. cases are among about 100 death cases nationwide the FBI said it will re-examine in partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Urban League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller on Tuesday announced the “Civil Rights-Era Cold Case Initiative” with leaders of the civil rights organizations.

Cleveland Sellers, who was among 30 people shot during the Feb. 8, 1968, incident at the S.C. State College campus, said Wednesday an investigation of the Orangeburg case is “certainly overdue.”

“The Orangeburg Massacre is, in fact, a litmus test for racial relations in South Carolina,” said Sellers, 63, now head of the African-American studies department at the University of South Carolina. “I want the incident to be thoroughly investigated and the truth to come out.”

Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP conference, said his organization recommended the Orangeburg case to the FBI after polling member branches statewide.

“Our goal always is for justice to prevail, “ he said. “To kill three people — it’s hard to think justice has been served when individuals are shot in the back.”

Former Gov. Robert McNair, who has been criticized by black leaders for his handling of the incident, said Wednesday in a prepared statement that any decision by the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice to reopen their investigation is “certainly up to them.”

“Immediately after the tragedy at Orangeburg, we requested that the FBI and Department of Justice conduct a full and comprehensive investigation of all of the events surrounding this incident since we felt very strongly that the state of South Carolina could not investigate itself,” said McNair.

McNair, in a biography released last year, said he accepts responsibility for the tragedy — his strongest statement to date about the matter.

The initial FBI probe led to federal charges against eight state troopers and another police officer. They were acquitted later by a mostly white jury.

Besides that incident, the FBI said this week it also will re-examine the death of a 13-year-old Edisto Island boy whose body washed ashore in Charleston County in 1960, and the 1965 shooting death of a man in an area of Allendale County where civil rights demonstrations were held. Both victims were black.

Most of the cases referred to the FBI are from the South. Georgia, for example, has 13 cases, and North Carolina, three.

Thom O’Neill, spokesman at the FBI office in Columbia, said Wednesday the decision whether to formally reopen any of the three S.C. cases will be made by Brian Lamkin, special agent in charge of the FBI’s S.C. operations. No deadlines have been set to complete investigations, he said.

O’Neill acknowledged the cases could be difficult to investigate, depending, for example on what records exist and how easy it will be to track down witnesses. The Orangeburg case could raise constitutional questions because the charged officers were acquitted.

“That one’s a little sticky,” O’Neill said.

Sellers, then a young civil rights activist who was the only person sent to prison in the incident, said he’s not interested in seeing new charges brought against officers involved in the shooting. Sellers was convicted of inciting a riot and served seven months in prison but received a full pardon from the state in 1993.

Instead, Sellers said, he wants state lawmakers to create a special commission to investigate the case. Previous bills aimed at doing that have died in the Legislature.

“I am hopeful that the state, through the Legislature, will step forward and raise the veil of secrecy and silence,” said Sellers, whose son, Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, was elected to the S.C. House in November. “They (authorities) have created culprits and placed the blame for what happened on innocent victim-citizens.”

Like Sellers, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who graduated from S.C. State in 1961, experienced firsthand what it was like to be a civil rights protester in those days.

“There was a tension hanging all over Orangeburg that went back to the 1950s,” Clyburn said Wednesday. “We were protesting policies, procedures and laws that were unjust.”

In 1960, Clyburn was charged with breach of the peace during a demonstration in Columbia. His conviction later was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 771-8484.

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