BY JACK BASS
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre. This event deals with a great tragedy for our state, one that former Gov. Robert E. McNair, in his farewell address to the legislature in 1971, characterized as “a scar on our state’s conscience.”
During an eight-to-ten-second burst of gunfire by law enforcement officers on the edge of the campus of what then was South Carolina State College, three students were fatally shot and 28 others were wounded.
All of those firing weapons were white. All of those wounded or killed were black.
The police officers involved were poorly trained in crowd control and were issued deadly buckshot.
Each officer was authorized to fire a weapon if he believed his or a fellow officer’s life was in danger, a violation of all official crowd control manuals at that time. Those manuals required that no one fire a weapon in that kind of situation unless a senior commander gave a command.
In the book “The Orangeburg Massacre,” which I co-authored with Jack Nelson, we conclude that in a sense the patrolmen were scapegoats.
The only person ever jailed was Cleveland L. Sellers, Jr., the ultimate scapegoat, who received a gunshot wound that night.
Today he is recognized as a leader during the Civil Rights era. Ultimately he received a pardon from the state.
Today Dr. Sellers serves as the highly effective president of Voorhees College, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church and located in his home town of Denmark. He and I will participate as panelists today at S.C. State in the annual program commemorating the anniversary of what happened.
Mercer University Press keeps the book in print. All royalties from the book, the earnings that go to an author, go to a special scholarship fund at South Carolina State named for the three students who were killed.
What is needed now is a final process of reconciliation that can make this scar on our state’s conscience fade away.
There’s a single issue involved in all of this, and that is justice, a word best defined as the absence of injustice.
To do so, we the people of South Carolina need a thorough inquiry and full report to the people of S.C. At least one statewide law firm has committed to provide an investigative and support staff without cost to the state.
There is precedent for this proposal. The state of Florida in 1993 commissioned a report on a tragedy that occurred 70 years earlier in the town of Rosewood, where African-Americans were forced to flee and lost their property after a racial episode that exploded.
The sheriff was involved, which reflected a level of state action.
Based on a Final Report in 1994, the Florida Legislature appropriated $2.1 million to compensate eight survivors ($150,000 each) and descendents forced to flee and lose their property 71 years earlier after the violence in 1923.
Other descendents received extended college scholarships.
The special master concluded the state had a “moral obligation” based on acts or omissions of law enforcement and other state officials. Florida’s action has allowed its scar to fade.
With this historical background, the question our state should address is simply this:
Does anyone believe that if three students at the University of South Carolina or Clemson had been killed and 28 others wounded by state police gunfire there would never have been a formal and full inquiry?
The question answers itself.
The time for our state government to act is now. This event on the campus of a state institution has never been investigated by the state of South Carolina.
For South Carolina to do so would demonstrate to the nation the character of a state willing to do the right thing for the right reason.
Not only would it allow a deep scar to fade, but doing the right thing on this issue would receive national attention and create good will, an intangible asset that money cannot buy.
Jack Bass is professor emeritus of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston and author or co-author of nine books.