Closure for Orangeburg Massacre

Saturday, December 29, 2007

By JACK BASS

The matter of the Orangeburg Massacre isn't going away. In Tom Brokaw's two-hour History Channel documentary this month based on BOOM, his new book about the year 1968, it received attention with extensive interview segments with both Cleveland Sellers, the scapegoat for what happened that fateful night, and his son, state Rep. Bakari Sellers.

A PBS documentary, produced by Northern Lights Productions in Boston, is now being edited for national broadcast next fall. It promises to be balanced, powerful and informative.

As the Times and Democrat contends (Dec. 16 editorial), the FBI's decision against reopening the investigation of "the Orangeburg Massacre" indeed was the correct call. It was obvious that any further prosecution against the highway patrolmen already tried and acquitted would amount to double jeopardy. The issue now is truth and reconciliation, not incrimination or blame. The FBI doesn't make public reports.

Historically, The Times and Democrat well documented what happened on Feb. 8, 1968, with its front page banner headline the next morning: "All Hell Breaks Loose -- Three Killed and Many Injured in College Nightmare." Chapter 14 in the current Mercer University Press 2002 edition of The Orangeburg Massacre, which I co-authored with Jack Nelson, reproduces an exchange of letters initiated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover with me soon after the book's initial publication in 1970.

The only inaccuracy he could find was that we erroneously gave the FBI credit for finding spent shotgun shells on the campus the next morning. They were actually found by Orangeburg photographer Cecil Williams and subsequently turned over to the FBI.

The Times and Democrat Dec. 16 editorial acknowledges that The Orangeburg Massacre is "to date the most definitive account" of why state troopers opened fire and also notes that "many dispute even that account." The editorial also acknowledged that sentiment remains in the Legislature for an investigation, "but supporters do not have the votes to make it happen. Many feel it is not necessary, as the conflicting stories and disputes are not resolvable."

The confusion that still exists in regard to what did happen is exactly why a full state investigation and official report is needed. Does anyone seriously believe that if three students had been killed and more than 27 others wounded on the campus of Clemson or USC by state police gunfire in 1968 that there would never have been a state investigation? The annual remembrance of the slain students remains an important occasion, but it fails to address the reality of truth and justice.

A major law firm in the state has quietly expressed to legislative leaders its willingness to provide pro bono a team of lawyers to collect and fully examine the evidence as part of such an investigation. There is little reason to believe that the conflicting stories are "not resolvable" with that caliber of volunteered talent effectively and dispassionately examining conflicting stories and disputes.

Legislation introduced this year for such a study remains buried in a sub-committee of the House Judiciary Committee. The subcommittee held no hearings and took no action other than to sit on the measure. There has been no debate on the House floor. For all I know, the opponents may fear a debate and vote because they believe the measure would pass.

In 2006, when his biography was published, former Gov. Robert E. McNair accepted "responsibility" for what happened. In accepting that responsibility as governor, it means that the state was responsible. The officers fired in their official capacity as agents of the state, what in legal terms is called "state action." The officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but the fact remains that three young men died and more than 27 others suffered serious gunshot wounds -- and painful emotional scars --while protesting illegal discrimination based on race. An obvious question is whether the state should make restitution, as the state of Florida did in 1994, after an official state investigation and report on the killing of at least eight black residents seven decades earlier in a white mob's assault on the almost all-black community of Rosewood.

Thoughtful people in Orangeburg should welcome a full and formal investigation and report of what happened 40 years ago because, among other things, it would show that officials of Orangeburg had little to do with what happened. City Police Chief Roger Poston ordered the bowling alley closed the first night of conflict there. Gov. McNair placed state police in charge the next day -- two days before the shooting.

At the trial of Cleveland Sellers, Chief Poston te.jpgied that he watched him carefully that week and saw him break no laws. Sellers was convicted of "riot" for activity in front of the bowling alley two nights before the shooting. The presiding judge threw out the other charges -- "incitement" and "conspiracy" to riot -- on grounds that the only evidence presented against the defendant was that he got shot "and that to my mind means very little." Solicitor Julian Wolfe in his closing argument to the jury didn't even ask for a conviction. The jury .jpgfened visibly, however, when the defense lawyer closed by telling them to look "in your racist hearts."

Although pardoned 23 years later, Sellers had become the scapegoat and was in prison when his first child, now a physician, was born. The Orangeburg Massacre also characterizes the nine defendant highway patrolmen as scapegoats in a sense. The decisions to issue lethal buckshot, which had been suggested by an FBI agent involved in rudimentary riot control training for the patrol, and to grant each officer authority to shoot, came from higher-ups. Both violated standard procedures outlined in all existing crowd-control manuals, which specifically stated that no one fires a weapon unless authorized by a senior officer in command and that minimum force be used. The policy in place amounted to a formula for disaster.

Although a number of witnesses testified hearing gunfire "from the direction of the campus" immediately before the deadly 8 to 10 barrage of deadly gunfire, here's what happened. What they heard was a patrolman stationed in front of them firing what he intended as warning shots into the air from his carbine as some 150 or so students who had retreated to the campus interior began heading back toward the sloping front edge, to watch firemen douse a bonfire. The sound of shots triggered the deadly firing by others.

Unfortunately, Gov. McNair erroneously reported the next day in Columbia that the shooting occurred off the campus. His report contained three other factual errors.

Sellers, then third ranking national officer in the FBI-targeted Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had returned to his native South Carolina after four years on the front lines of civil rights conflict in the Deep South. In Orangeburg, however, his attention had turned to a new idea -- developing consciousness and student awareness of black history and culture -- a subject then unrecognized as worthy of serious academic study. He went on to earn a master's degree in education from Harvard and a Ph.D. in education administration from the University of North Carolina.

Earlier this month, in a special ceremony at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, he formally received the Eagle Scout award he had earned at 16 in Denmark.. After a request by him last spring, the Boy Scouts of America searched for and found paperwork misplaced more than four decades earlier.

The chief Boy Scout official for central South Carolina, in making the presentation, said Sellers had spent his full life living the values of the Boy Scouts. The award was made at a luncheon attended by roughly 60 people, including more than a dozen adult Eagle Scouts and Chief Justice Jean Toal of the South Carolina Supreme Court. As a young woman, she had participated in the same Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 that Sellers had during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement that helped transform the American South.

After the presentation, he was photographed together with the other Eagle Scouts in attendance, including Sen. Brad Hutto [growing up in North, I only made the basic rank of Tenderfoot, failing to master the knot-tying requirement for advancement to Second Class]. Sellers spoke only of his Scouting experience, its values and the work required for the 21 merit badges he earned -- smiling as he described the details of his planting, caring for, and harvesting a garden crop.

His pardon in 1993 led to his becoming a valued member of the USC faculty and director of its highly rated African-American Studies program -- a harvest of his pioneering interest while in Orangeburg in 1997 and 1968.

The time has come for South Carolina to bring closure to the Orangeburg Massacre. The theme for the upcoming 40th anniversary memorial ceremony at the South Carolina State campus will be "truth and reconciliation." The state Legislature will have the opportunity to fulfill that theme by passing the current resolution in order to present the people of South Carolina with truth, from which reconciliation and justice can follow.

The people of Orangeburg and all of South Carolina should welcome it.

Jack Bass is professor of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston.