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The front page of the Charleston Evening Post as it appeared on Feb. 9, 1968 — one day after the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina State College.

They died as martyrs.

Henry Smith.

Samuel Hammond, Jr.

Delano Middleton.

They were young, black and unarmed.

Smith and Hammond, both 18, attended South Carolina State College, a historically black college founded in 1896. Hammond, 17, was a student at Wilkinson High School at the time.

The three young men joined others in demanding equal treatment, and on the night of Feb. 8, 1968 they died fighting for it when state troopers lined up and fired into a crowd of protesters at the college.

Their names now appear in books and on monuments, forever linked to the event known as the Orangeburg Massacre that left three dead and wounded 28 others.

The protest was held in response to the racist policies of the city’s only bowling alley.

Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation practices, integration had not made its way to the All-Star Bowling Lanes in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Two days before the bloody event on campus, the owner of All-Star Bowling Lanes, Harry K. Floyd, refused to let black students bowl at his establishment. Floyd claimed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to his establishment because it was private. 

The alley, however, operated a lunch counter. This meant the business fell under the jurisdiction of laws related to interstate commerce and, by extension, subject to adhering to federal desegregation.

Nine students and one police officer would be injured when tensions rose and turned violent in the days before the Orangeburg Massacre.

The protest on Feb. 8, 1968 was the city’s third straight night of violence, but it would become one of the deadliest night’s in the city’s and the state’s history.

“Suddenly, and no one seems to know who gave the order, the 50-odd policemen opened a crackling fire with shotguns, carbines and pistols at the dimly silhouetted students,” an Evening Post reporter wrote in a Feb. 9, 1968 article. “The firing lasted only a few seconds.”

Around the perimeter of the campus stood 600 National Guardsmen, who sealed off an eight-block radius near the college.

It is something that survivor Jordan Simmons, III will not forget. In an editorial published in The Post and Courier in 2003, Simmons shared his story. On the night of the protest, he was shot in the right side of his neck.

"The common thread for us is the lingering trauma of being shot and/or beaten suddenly, without warning, and from our perspective for no apparent reason. After all, we stood within the safety confines of campus grounds that night. Or so we thought," he wrote.

The governor at the time, Gov. Robert McNair, would declare a state of emergency in Orangeburg County and ordered a curfew in the city starting at 5 p.m.

The protest at South Carolina State College occurred two years before unarmed students at Kent State University  were shot by the Ohio National Guard while protesting the Vietnam War. Four students were killed.

Cleveland Sellers, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was among the wounded. He was arrested the following day for inciting a riot.

Former S.C. lawmaker Bakari Sellers is his son. In a show of solidarity with his father, Bakari Sellers changed his Twitter profile picture to his father's mugshot on the night he was arrested.

In an interview with The Post and Courier earlier this year for “The Thread” podcast, Bakari Sellers shared how that night changed his father and himself.

“I hold more pain and animus toward the state of South Carolina in my heart for the events of Feb. 8, 1968 than probably my father does,” Bakari Sellers said. “Having to look at a man who had friends killed that night, who had to suffer imprisonment, who was actually in jail while my older sister was being born.”

Bakari Sellers said the first time his father would actually hold his sister would be when his mother brought his sister to what was then known as the Columbia Correctional Institute.

“He got a chance to see her on the yard,” he said.

When Bakari Sellers was a South Carolina lawmaker, he asked the state to conduct an investigation of the shooting.

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This photo of Cleveland Sellers appeared on the front page of the Charleston Evening Post on Feb. 9, 1968. He was arrested following the Orangeburg Massacre. He would eventually be pardoned.

Initial reports at the time of the shooting would state that it was protesters who fired on police. That would turn out to be patently false.

It would take decades for the truth about what happened that night to emerge and to be accepted, and it would take even longer for the state to make amends, starting with Cleveland Sellers.

After almost 25 years after his conviction, Cleveland Sellers would be pardoned in July 1993.

“Sometimes it takes a long time for the truth to rise up, but it inevitably will,” Cleveland Sellers told the Associated Press at the time of his pardon. “I’m hoping some of the youngsters will be able to learn a lesson in determination and patience and the ability to endure.”

Cleveland Sellers spent seven months in prison for his alleged crimes. In an article printed in the July 21, 1993 edition of The Post and Courier, he said he felt like a burden had been lifted.

Even the name — the Orangeburg Massacre — would not be widely used until modern times.

So when then-Gov. Jim Hodges used the term 33 years later to apologize for the events of that night, it was historic.

“We deeply regret what happened on the night of Feb. 8, 1968,” Hodges said on Feb. 8, 2001. He also called the shooting “a great tragedy for our state.”

It was the first official concession of remorse by the State of South Carolina for its role in the Orangeburg Massacre.

For Simmons, who survived the shooting and got married six days later, he wonders most about the three lives lost.

He wonders what their lives could have been.

"Let us consider what might have been for Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton had they survived that fateful night back on Feb. 8, 1968," he wrote in the 2003 editorial published by The Post and Courier. "Smith, Hammond and Middleton might have gotten married and had families by now. They might have been finishing up careers and looking forward to retirement. They possibly would be spending time with their grandchildren and enjoying things grandpas and grandchildren do together."

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Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.