Lawmakers urge probe of Orangeburg Massacre

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Reprinted from The State

A group of lawmakers plans to push again next year for a formal investigation into the Orangeburg Massacre.

The 1968 shooting — in which state troopers fired into a crowd of civil rights protesters, killing three — had been the defining moment in S.C. State University’s history, the event for which the historically black college was best known.

However, a nationally televised Democratic presidential debate, hosted by S.C. State last month, has drawn more publicity than ever before to the school. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, an S.C. State graduate, said he hoped the debate would come to define the school.

But it is difficult for some to let go of what happened in 1968, especially with questions unanswered.

“We may not like what (an investigation) finds, but perhaps we can bring some closure to this,” said state Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, who filed a bill this year to open a review.

With just three weeks left in the 2007 General Assembly and Weeks’ bill in subcommittee, the issue is dead for now. But Weeks and others hope to revive it during next year’s legislative session, which begins in January.

BROADER SUPPORT NEEDED

Next February will mark 40 years since Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond, and Delano Middleton were shot to death.

For many African-Americans, “hard feelings” linger over the unresolved sequence of events that triggered the shootings, Weeks said. “There are still a lot of questions — a certain mystery about what happened.”

Weeks’ bill, H.3824, is co-signed by 25 other legislators, all but one African-American. However, passing the bill will require support from white lawmakers, including Republicans who control the Legislature. So far, only one white lawmaker, state Rep. Thad Viers, R-Horry, is among the bill’s co-sponsors.

The House bill would create a five-member commission that would have subpoena power to investigate the incident. It would send a report to the governor and the General Assembly.

Some in the House fear an investigation would only reopen old wounds.

“I would like to know what it (a review) will accomplish,” said state Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Harrison’s support will be needed to get the bill moving because it must clear his committee to get a House vote.

“If it will help move South Carolina forward, I’m all for it,” Harrison said. “If it’s simply going to dredge up the past and (allege) wrongdoings, then I don’t see what good it’s going to do.”
If the bill is to go anywhere next year, Harrison said, he would like to see “a broad range of people on all sides” saying they support the measure.

Some of the legislators involved are intimately connected to the incident. One is working on Harrison.

Freshman state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, is the son of Cleveland Sellers, a key figure in the massacre. Wounded by police and described by authorities as an “outside agitator,” the elder Sellers was convicted of inciting to riot in 1970, sentenced to a year in prison and fined $250.

The senior Sellers was the only person convicted on charges related to the shootings. Now a USC history professor and director of its African American Studies program, Sellers was pardoned by Gov. Carroll Campbell in 1993.

The younger Sellers, one of the co-sponsors of Weeks’ bill, has given Harrison a paperback copy of “The Orangeburg Massacre,” written in 1970 by journalists Jack Nelson and Jack Bass.

U.S. House Majority Whip Clyburn, D-Columbia, played a key role in bringing the Democratic debate to Orangeburg. Afterward, he declared the debate started a new chapter in the school’s history, one in which it would not be best known for the massacre.

But, he said, that new chapter should not dismiss the efforts of state lawmakers to open an investigation or be misunderstood as a lack of interest in the issue.

“The South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus has a role to play,” Clyburn said of the group heading the push for an investigation. “I have a role to play, and I think part of my role is to try and do what is necessary to get the students of South Carolina State University focusing in a positive way again.”

FEDERAL COURT ACQUITTED OFFICERS

In the 1968 shooting, Smith, Hammond and Middleton were slain, and 27 others — all unarmed — were injured. The incident was the first of its kind on a U.S. college campus and, critics say, the least noticed.

On a cold February night, after several days of racial strife involving black students, a whites-only bowling alley and police, about 150 law enforcement officers were hunkered down near the entrance to the S.C. State campus. They unleashed a hail of bullets on students gathered to watch city firefighters extinguish a bonfire.

Nine patrol officers — all white — were charged in connection with the shootings. They were acquitted in federal court.

After decades of silence, then-Gov. James McNair accepted responsibility for the incident in a biography published last year.

In a groundbreaking 2001 speech, then-Gov. Jim Hodges expressed deep regret for the incident. In 2003, Gov. Mark Sanford took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the event.

But there never has been a state investigation to learn how a student protest escalated into a mass shooting.

In a recent program on South Carolina’s ETV, Bass said a state trooper fired a couple of “warning shots” over the students’ heads. That caused other troopers to open fire, perhaps thinking the shots had come from the students.

Bass said the chief defense lawyer for the nine troopers told him that one had acknowledged firing the warning shots.

Bass said the time and timing for a review is right — with a public TV documentary in the works, a cable TV movie a possibility and the massacre’s 40th anniversary looming.

“The idea here is not to cast blame but create understanding and bring closure,” said Bass, now a College of Charleston humanities and social sciences professor. “It’s going to get a lot of attention, and it will make the state look good (if it addresses) this issue.”

Reach Roddie Burris at (803) 771-8398 or rburris@thestate.com.

WHAT’S NEXT

Twenty-six lawmakers signed on to H.3824, which would create a panel to investigate the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre.

The bill is stuck in a House subcommittee and is not likely to pass this year.

Bill supporters are lobbying other lawmakers to push the bill along for a vote next year. Those supporters plan to bring the bill up in January, which is the beginning the second year of the two-year legislative session.

REVISITING OLD CASES

The federal government may revisit some civil rights-era cases, including the Orangeburg Massacre. In March, the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice said they are re-examining three such cases in South Carolina to determine whether they should be formally reopened to investigation. They are:

The Orangeburg Massacre, 1968. Three college students were killed and 27 others were wounded when police opened fire on the students at S.C. State University.

Allendale County homicide, 1965. James Waymers was shot dead in an area where civil rights demonstrations had been held.

Charleston County teen’s body found, 1960. The disfigured body of 13-year-old Fred Robinson of Edisto Island washed ashore. His eyes were gouged out and his skull was crushed.