A bonfire near the campus of South Carolina State College, on Feb. 8, 1968, the night of the Orangeburg Massacre.
The State Newspaper Photograph Archive
retrieval / justice

In 1968, Three Students Were Killed by Police. Today, Few Remember the Orangeburg Massacre

The shootings occurred two years before the deaths at Kent State University, but remain a little-known incident in the Civil Rights Movement.
Recalling the event decades later, Robert Lee Davis remembered the chaotic noise and fear that permeated the night of February 8, 1968. “Students were hollering, yelling and running,” Davis said. “I went into a slope near the front end of the campus and I kneeled down. I got up to run, and I took one step; that’s all I can remember. I got hit in the back.” He was among the 28 students of South Carolina State College injured that day in the Orangeburg Massacre; his friend, freshman Samuel Hammond, who had also been shot in the back, died of his wounds. Later that night, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith would also die; all three killed by the police were only 18 years old.

Despite being the first deadly confrontation between university students and law enforcement in United States history, the Orangeburg Massacre is a rarely remembered tragedy. Occurring two years before the better-known Kent State University shootings, and two months before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the incident “barely penetrated the nation’s consciousness,” writes Jack Bass in his 1970 book The Orangeburg Massacre. Fifty years later, the events of the evening remain contested, and no formal investigation into the incident has ever been undertaken.

Although some news organizations, including the Associated Press, characterized the shootings as a “riot” at the time, the Orangeburg massacre came after a long series of clashes with local law enforcement and politicians. The city, located between Columbia and Charleston, had about 14,000 residents at the time of the killing. Home to South Carolina State College (today South Carolina State University) and Claflin College, both HBCUs, Orangeburg “played a really important role in the activism happening throughout South Carolina,” says Jack Shuler, a professor of English at Denison University and the author of Blood and Bone: Truth and Reconciliation in a Southern Town.

King himself came through the town on multiple occasions to deliver speeches, students protested for desegregation, and pastors worked to foster change throughout the community, Shuler says. “The massacre wasn’t just a random thing that happened. It was part of the longer story, which goes back to the founding of the community.”
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