Fifty years ago at S.C. State University, three African-American students were shot and killed, and at least 27 more wounded when state troopers fired a volley of buckshot into students protesting a segregated bowling alley.
On Thursday, 1,000 people gathered at the state’s only historically black public college to commemorate the lives lost in the Orangeburg Massacre.
Family members of the three students killed – Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith – lit candles in memory of their lost loved ones.
The event was a call to action for survivors and younger generations to fight enduring injustices. Among those injustices: The state still has not conducted an investigation into the shooting.
Then-Gov. Robert McNair blamed a minority of “black power” advocates for the violence. The troopers involved were tried and acquitted.
“Our past is our present. And our history is alive with us right here, right now,” said former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who gave the keynote address at S.C. State on Thursday.
Among those wounded in the shooting was Sellers’ father, Cleveland Sellers, the only person arrested after the tragedy. The elder Sellers, charged with inciting a riot, spent seven months in prison. He was pardoned in 1993.
Sixteen years after the massacre, the younger Sellers, now an attorney and CNN analyst, recalled: “Even as a child, I saw the scars and heard the story again and again, reminded of the struggle and my place in it, and my duty to continue for those who cannot, those who gave what Lincoln called ‘the last full measure of devotion.’ ”
“I look back on that memory of a bowling alley, and I have to ask: ‘Was it even worth it?’ ”
Sellers said some things have changed.
The S.C. Highway Patrol now has black troopers and its first black commander. The younger Sellers was elected to the S.C. General Assembly becoming the youngest black elected official in the nation at the time.
But other things have not.
Consider the “17-year-old kid who knows his life is over because the two joints in his glove compartment mean he’ll never get a job that pays over minimum wage, and the 15-year-oldwhose high school has three armed police officers but no guidance counselor,” Sellers said.
“You see, they took away the whips and the chains, and they gave us mandatory minimums and student loan debt.”
The three-hour ceremony, held in a building named for the three students killed in the massacre, included musical and poetry performances that punctuated a message that African-Americans continue to struggle against inequality in society, in the workplace and in the criminal justice system.
Charlottesville, Va., Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, who pushed for the removal of a Confederate monument from a public space in that city, challenged the audience to become change agents.
The 2009 S.C. State graduate urged the audience to hold local elected officials accountable when they fail to make equality a priority in the policies they support.
“It’s all fine and dandy to dress up nice ... and say that we respect and honor those who sacrificed for us,” Bellamy said. “But what’s better than dressing up and saying it is actually doing something about it.”
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg also spoke, recalling how as a 12-year-old paper boy in Orangeburg, he read about the Orangeburg Massacre in newspapers.
Tecklenburg, whose mother was S.C. State’s first female trustee, said his thinking about race and white privilege changed because of the shooting and the way his parents responded.
“I was still just 12 years old, but I watched this incredible example of my parents and their activity, their social activism, to try to bring this community back together,” he said.
Fifty years later, massacres still are happening, the Charleston mayor said, recalling how, almost three years ago, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans at a Bible study at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church.
“When are we going to stop this?” he shouted.
‘A false sense of where we are’
Among those at Thursday’s commemoration was Arthur Latham, now 70. Fifty years ago, Latham was at the demonstration with his brother, who also was his roommate at S.C. State. Then, the melee started.
Latham was up on a hill looking down to where the patrolmen were. Then, “all of a sudden, the patrolmen came up the hill and started firing.”
Latham said he did everything he could to escape the gunfire. “I actually crawled for ... it seemed like a hundred yards.”
Latham made it back to his dorm but could not find his brother, so he went back out to look for him.
“That’s when I saw some of the carnage that had happened, which even made it worse for me. I ran from place to place, and then I’m over at the infirmary to see if he was there.”
Exhausted, Latham went back to his room, where his brother returned shortly thereafter.
Latham said young people today “are given a false sense of where we are.” His children have more than he had as a child, “but that’s not to say they’ve reached the goal.”
“There is still a need for a call to action,” Latham said. “We still have to be vigilant in our efforts to achieve equality.”