A survivor's view: Get to the Orangeburg Massacre truth

Jordan M. Simmons III

On Feb. 8, 1968, I was shot in the right side of my neck with a double-ought buckshot round lodging against my spine. Three students died, and 28 others were wounded that horrific night 45 years ago after an eight- to ten-second barrage of police gunfire on the campus of South Carolina State College.

It became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

I was taken to the hospital in Orangeburg, with doctors uncertain I would live. I was blessed with a mother who ventured out that night from Summerville, along with my 17-year-old brother, and ran a gantlet of law enforcement personnel to get to me at the hospital in Orangeburg. They drove me to Charleston where most of the buckshot was removed.

Mom's No. 1 concern while holding my hand and talking to me was that if I should die that night, she wanted to make sure that I did not harbor malice or anger towards whoever it was that shot me. I didn't then or now. A caring family has been a stabilizing anchor for me over the last 45 years.

I slowly recovered from the wound and graduated that May. I got married six days later and voluntarily enlisted two months after marriage as a U.S. Army private. I was commissioned as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army a year later after attending Officer Candidate School. My almost 29-year military career included combat in Vietnam and two decades later in Operation Desert Storm.

I do not know why God spared me that night on campus, nor why He allowed me to come back from two wars. I have been blessed with a loving wife, a son, two daughters, a daughter-in-law, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren. I give thanks to Him.

As we ponder this tragedy of 45 years ago, 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. 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. Perhaps we can take some solace in the words from Psalms 116, verse 15, which says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His servants.”

Also, let us think about current circumstances for those who survived the shootings. How has this tragedy affected us and our relations with families, friends, and other acquaintances?

To be sure, each survivor who absorbed that experience was adversely affected in different ways. 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.

One of the most difficult realities I personally have confronted over the years centers on knowing that there were victims who indeed did not have that privilege of becoming a husband, father, or grandfather. Not only those who were killed, but lives of wounded survivors were severely and permanently altered — physically, mentally, and emotionally. Some still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly called PTSD. This type of anxiety disorder is often associated with military — or other — traumatic experiences or events involving the threat of injury or death.

I've observed PTSD symptoms among some fellow survivors of the Orangeburg Massacre. Some have suffered for years from reliving the events of that night, experiencing feelings of irritability or outbursts of anger, or having trouble falling or staying asleep. Some may have had problems with alcohol, other substance abuse, and depression.

Perhaps a full inquiry by the state of South Carolina could help heal the lasting wounds and emotional scars of that night 45 years ago. Provisions might include proper treatment for those still suffering from lasting trauma that affected them economically and emotionally.

We do not have the power to go back and undo what happened in 1968. Fully confronting the truth, however, may provide lessons for avoiding such tragedies in the future.

Our goal should be that espoused by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jordan M. Simmons III is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. His email is 3rdjms@gmail.com.