Jordan Simmons and the tattered overcoat

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Jordan Simmons, '68, kept his old overcoat for years, the old brown one with bullet holes in the back.

It was a reminder of the most frightening experience of his life - in a life filled with them. Simmons, a former sprinter at the all-black Austin High in Summerville and later at SC State, was on the university’s campus during a protest of a segregated Orangeburg bowling alley. Simmons was one of 30 men and women shot after state troopers fired guns into the group, which numbered about 200. The Feb. 8, 1968, incident, in which three young men died, has come to be known the Orangeburg Massacre.

Simmons, at the time a senior at SC State, says he was not protesting. He says he had walked to visit his fiance, a student at nearby Claflin University. On his walk back to the SC State campus, he stopped near the epicenter of the protest because he was curious.

“It was like a party,” he says. “I didn’t see anybody do anything wrong. There was a bonfire down in the street. That’s as close as I can tell. If you want to say they shouldn’t have been burning a fire, then yes, by all means, that would have been wrong.”

Tensions had been high for four days, when protesters gathered near the All Star Bowling Lane, Orangeburg’s only bowling alley and one of its only segregated establishments. After an altercation between blacks and whites, protesters moved closer to the SC. State campus. On the fourth night of the demonstration, protesters threw trash and debris at the state troopers. One officer was hit in the face by a banister rail, which compelled another officer to fire his pistol in the air. Other troopers heard the gunshot and began firing into the crowd.

Simmons says he heard the gunfire and turned to run. He felt what he describes as tugs on his overcoat, which he later learned were buckshot rounds tearing through the fabric. Simmons was shot in the neck, and he fell to the ground and tried to crawl away.

“I just think adrenaline is what really got me going. I initially thought I had gotten nicked, gotten a little glancing shot,” he says.

“It was just mass panic. In retrospect, you look back at these things. You do a lot of what-ifs, and that doesn’t help anything. The whole campus, it was just chaotic. It was chaos that occurred because no one expected to be shot or even shot at. We hadn’t done anything.”

Like most of the wounded, Simmons was treated at the overcrowded SC State infirmary. It was there that he saw Samuel Hammond, a 19-year-old who had been shot in the chest, lying on the floor and bleeding badly. Hammond later died of his wound. Delano Middleton, 17, and Henry Smith, 20, also died.

Simmons, who was in the army during the Vietnam conflict, sayssaid he saw many gruesome acts of violence. He says nothing that occurred in Vietnam was as frightening as the Orangeburg Massacre. He says he had no idea why he had been shot. He also had no idea if the shootings were finished.

“I was flat afraid that those guys were going to do us in,” says Simmons, a 29-year army veteran. “I’ve been in combat; I’ve been in two wars. I’ll be honest with you: I wasn’t as afraid in the jungles of Vietnam as I was of those white guys back there. Because out there (in Vietnam), I could defend myself. In the hospital, I just felt helpless. Even in the hospital, I didn’t know why I was shot. I just remember thinking they were out to kill a bunch of people - a bunch of black people.”

Simmons graduated from SC State three months after the shootings. He continued running, first because the military required it. Until recently, Simmons participated in distance running events, at the Masters level, until 1998.

After graduation, he handed over his tattered overcoat to the FBI, which investigated the Orangeburg Massacre and used the coat as evidence. But there are other reminders: He occasionally suffers from neck pain caused by the shooting.

Still, Simmons says he is not bitter about the incident. He says he has moved past it and believes more is necessary to put it behind the blacks who were affected by the Orangeburg Massacre. Simmons says he would like to meet with the children of the state troopers who fired into the crowd, to tell them all is forgiven - even if it is not forgotten.

“I would suspect most of them probably thought they were doing something that was right. It was not right,” says Simmons, who now lives in Virginia. “What’s interesting about this is that, as a soldiers, I respect (opponents). After the war was over, guys (on both sides) shook hands.

“I know some of them realize they made a mistake, even if the perception was there that they were doing something right at the time. I hold no malice against them, their fathers. They need to know that.”

Retrieved from The State newspaper. Reach Kent Babb at (803) 771-8357.