Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968

Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968

Sun, 02/07/2010 - 10:00am - 11:00am

Pictured: National Guard troops at roadblock on Orangeburg, SC the night after the “Orangeburg Massacre”

Credit: Bill Barley

Tune in and learn more about the most unknown tragedy in the history of The Civil Rights Movement.

On February 8, 1968, eight seconds of police gunfire left three young men dying and at least 28 wounded on the campus of South Carolina State College at Orangeburg. All of the police were white, all of the students African American. Almost all of the victims were shot from behind as they fled the gunfire that erupted without warning. The shootings were the culmination of four days of student protests over the desegregation of the city’s only bowling alley, located just minutes from the campus. It was the first time ever that police opened fire on students on a U.S. campus, yet it remains an almost unknown event in the history of the American civil rights movement.

Two years later, the killings of four white students at Kent State University would rock the nation. Unlike the Kent State killings, the Orangeburg Massacre did not make national headlines nor has there ever been an official, public report about what occurred that night. In Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, filmmakers Judy Richardson and Bestor Cram present a chilling story about the abuse of power during a period of tumultuous social upheaval and the veil of secrecy that continues to shroud the Massacre and raises questions that are relevant in America’s continuing struggle for racial justice today.

Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, airing Sunday, February 7 at 10 a.m. and again at 4 p.m., and 11 p.m. on WXXI PBS-WORLD (DT21.2/cable534),  features interviews with the most important participants on both sides of the tragedy. These include Dr. Cleveland Sellers; Robert McNair, then governor; two officers present during the event; and student witnesses, some of these speak publicly for the first time about the Massacre. Also interviewed are Jack Bass and Jack Nelson, two prominent Southern white journalists and authors of The Orangeburg Massacre, a revealing investigation of the event. In 1968, Orangeburg was a typical Southern town still clinging to its Jim Crow traditions. The town was home to two black colleges — Claflin and S.C. State — and a majority black population.

Western New York's United Methodist Bishop Rev. Dr. Marcus Matthews was a senior at S.C. State when the massacre happened, and one of his closest friends was killed.  Bishop Matthew shares his story on the North Central New York Conference of The United Methodist Church Web site. He states:

"That night is seared into my memory as well, but for a different reason. On the evening of Feb. 8, 1968, I lay on the ground on campus, fearing for my life as bullets pierced the leaves on the trees overhead, ” Bishop Matthews recalls. “At 10:33 p.m., police opened fire on us -- 200 college students -- as we protested the refusal of a local bowling alley to serve black students.

"Three died, including one of my close friends, and 27 were wounded in the Orangeburg Massacre. That day profoundly changed my life, putting me on the path that resulted in my becoming the United Methodist bishop of Central and Western New York. ”

Economic and political power remained exclusively in the hands of the white community. Minutes from campus sat an all-white bowling alley. After negotiations failed, demonstrations were mounted, during which police beat two female students. The incensed students then smashed the windows of white-owned businesses along the route back to campus. With scenes of the riots in Detroit and Newark fresh in their minds, Orangeburg’s residents, white businessmen, and city officials feared urban terrorists were now in Orangeburg. The Governor sent in the state police and National Guard.

By late evening of February 8th, army tanks and over 100 heavily armed law enforcement officers had cordoned off the campus; 450 more were stationed downtown. Shortly after a fire truck extinguished the students’ bonfire, police suddenly began firing. When the shooting was over, at least 28 students lay on State’s campus with multiple buckshot wounds; three others had been killed. South Carolina claimed police had fired in self-defense, and most of the media believed the state’s version. The U.S. Attorney General suspected an abuse of power and ordered an FBI investigation, which found no evidence of weapons on the State College campus.

An annual commemoration has been held at South Carolina State every year since the Massacre, attended by the families of the slain, the survivors, and many others, in order to ensure that the tragedy is not forgotten and to continue the demand for an investigation of the event. Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968 is a scrupulously researched documentary that investigates the continued cover-up of the tragedy and follows ongoing efforts to seek justice. With a resonance that carries us far beyond the tragedy itself, the film is a powerful antidote to historical amnesia.