Face up to history

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Reprinted from The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)

Many hoped that last month's Democratic presidential debate at South Carolina State University would help usher in a new era for the historically black college in Orangeburg. But that should not preclude an effort to get to the bottom of what has come to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

Although the demonstration in which three students were slain occurred in 1968, exactly what transpired has remained a mystery, and hard feelings still linger. The massacre also has hung like a dark cloud over SC State, and sponsors of the debate hoped it would help foster a new image for the school. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, an SC State graduate who was instrumental in having the debate held at his alma mater, said he hoped the event would be "transformational" for SC State.

But a thorough investigation of the events that led up to the deaths of the three students also could help dispel the discontent that remains. To that end, state Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, filed a bill 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.

With less than three weeks left in the 2007 session, the bill will have to wait until the next session, which begins in January. We hope lawmakers will approve this investigation and that it will determine what happened in 1968.

Last year, former South Carolina Gov. Robert E. McNair broke four decades of silence and took responsibility for the massacre. He said he sent National Guard members and state troopers to the campus to keep the peace after two days of protests over a segregated bowling alley. During the confrontation, Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton were shot to death and 27 more students were wounded.

It now is known that 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.

An investigation into what occurred on that tragic day is long overdue. Thankfully, however, many of the participants and witnesses still are alive and able to answer questions about what happened.

We hope the General Assembly will authorize this effort to set the record straight and make amends for failing to address what actually happened on a more timely basis. That, too, could be a transformational event not only for SC State but also the state as a whole.

Lawmakers should support probe of events leading up to Orangeburg Massacre.