ORANGEBURG — In an emotional address at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Orangeburg Massacre, former state Rep. Bakari Sellers insisted the 1968 shooting on the campus of S.C. State College was no isolated event but part of a long continuum of racial discrimination and violence in the state.
“They tell us to let go, they tell us to forget,” the Columbia-based attorney and CNN commentator said. “But a wound that’s not bound never heals.”
Sellers cited historical figures such as George Elmore, a South Carolinian who in 1946 sued successfully for the right of African-Americans to vote in the Democratic primary, as well as the victims of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church, as proof of the persistence of racial strife.
“Our past is our present, and our history is alive with us right here and right now,” Sellers said. “They took away the whips and chains and gave us mandatory minimums and student loan debt. Our history is all around us, and it’s about time we do something about it.”
Sellers is the youngest son of Cleveland Sellers Jr., who was among the wounded in the Orangeburg Massacre and the only person convicted and jailed in the wake of the shooting by state highway patrolmen that killed three and wounded at least 28.
The elder Sellers, who grew up in nearby Denmark, had been a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was in town to promote black studies and cultural awareness among students.
Bakari Sellers wasn’t the only one to call for healing. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg recalled his youth spent in Orangeburg, mentioned the apology issued by then-Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 and discussed the historical relevance of Charleston, “the epicenter of slavery and Jim Crow.”
“What are we going to do 50 years after the Orangeburg Massacre? What are we going to do?” he said, choking up with emotion. “The state should initiate and conduct a full investigation of what happened here. We need a lot more than an apology. We must move from apology to repentance.”
Claflin University President Henry Tisdale repeated the call for a formal investigation.
“Let the facts speak for themselves,” he said, citing the trauma endured by victims and their families.
After the incident, the FBI conducted an inquiry that many considered incomplete and sloppy. Then-Gov. Robert McNair, who blamed Cleveland Sellers for the violence, never called for an independent investigation, preferring to maintain that state troopers, local law enforcement and the National Guard were protecting the city from black militants eager to riot.
The 50th anniversary commemoration also featured contributions from Orangeburg Mayor Michael Butler; Col. Chris Williamson, commander of the Highway Patrol; S.C. State President James Clark; William Hine, a retired S.C. State history professor and chairman of the commemoration committee; Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School Principal Casandra Jenkins; and students from the two schools plus Claflin.
Also present was Wes Bellamy, a graduate of S.C. State and vice mayor of Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacists rallied in August, resulting in one death there.
Bellamy issued a passionate call to action, saying that equity, not equality, should be the goal. It’s one thing to give a pen to someone with a broken arm, and quite another to provide the pen and repair the arm, he said.
“What are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good?” he said to the crowd packed into the Smith-Hammon-Middleton Memorial Center on campus.
The center was named for the three teenagers killed in the shooting: Henry Smith, 19, and Samuel Hammond, 18, both S.C. State students, and Delano Middleton, 17, a student at Wilkinson High School whose mother worked at the college.
Their family members attended Thursday’s event, where three candles were lit in memory of the slain.