South Carolina’s role in the Civil Rights Movement is not widely known — and one tragic moment still has not been investigated by the state — activists who fought against segregation and for equal rights said Friday.
At Trinity United Methodist Church — a frequent meeting place for African-American civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s — Cleveland Sellers told members of Congress and others touring South Carolina on a civil rights pilgrimage about the massacre that happened not far from the church’s sanctuary.
The Kent State massacre of four white students protesting the Vietnam War in 1970 received widespread news coverage, unlike the killing of three and injuring of more than two dozen students at the historically black S.C. State University in Orangeburg one night in February 1968, said Sellers, now the president of Voorhees College in Denmark.
Sellers was shot, arrested and charged with rioting and related accusations in the incident where police opened fire on students who were protesting a segregated bowling alley.
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South Carolina never investigated what happened. Sellers said he and other activists are “still asking the state of South Carolina to do something.”
“Forty-eight years and to this date, I don’t think any of us know what happened to everybody. We don’t know why they were shot, don’t know what they were shot with,” Sellers said, growing emotional and pausing to wipe tears from his eyes, noting that one of the victims was high school student Delano Middleton.
Charleston historian Jack Bass — a reporter at the time of the Orangeburg Massacre — talked about the difficulty of getting the story out. And Orangeburg photographer Cecil Williams showed photographs he took starting as a boy of important moments in South Carolina’s civil rights history.
The Faith and Politics Institute brought the bipartisan delegation of 14 members of Congress and 200 students, seminarians, local leaders and regular participants in the pilgrimages to South Carolina. Among them are U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, and John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston.
Since 1998, the organization has led annual civil rights pilgrimages in five southern states to give congressional members access to the history of the civil rights movement.
The group finished Friday at S.C. State, where they laid a wreath at a memorial built for the three victims who died in the shooting. Their day began, however, in Columbia at Zion Baptist Church — a spiritual home for freed blacks after the Civil War and the heart of Columbia’s civil rights efforts.
Speaking to reporters Friday at the church, Clyburn said the trip to South Carolina might provide “some answers to the question so many people are asking: How could those family members, having just experienced such a horrific act, stand before the world, and say to the accused perpetrator of that act, ‘I forgive you.’ ”
Clyburn was referring to the family members of the nine slain African-Americans who were shot and killed during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last summer.
“What happened in this state can be a lesson for the whole nation,” Lewis also said of the Mother Emanuel tragedy. “This is what the struggle has been all about. To be able to forgive with a sense of grace, hope and love.”
Asked about recent violence on the presidential campaign trail, Lewis said, “I don’t think there’s any room in our society, whether in a movement or in a political campaign, for violence.”
Lewis recalled being beaten in 1961 at a Rock Hill Greyhound station when he and other Freedom Riders stopped there to stage a peaceful protest against segregation. Rock Hill’s Elwin Wilson, who attacked the Freedom Riders, came to his office in Washington, D.C., in 2009 with his son and apologized, asking for forgiveness.
“I said, ‘I accept your apology. I forgive you.’ They hugged me, I hugged them back, and the three of us cried together,” Lewis said of Wilson, who died in 2013.
Calling Clyburn and Lewis “civil rights heroes” and “heroes of the American journey,” Scott said love is key to reconciliation.
“If we’re looking for that power that eradicates hate, that power that brings light into dark places, power that has transformed the state, we have to think about the foundation of love, the foundation of reconciliation,” he said.
S.C. civil rights pilgrimage
The Faith and Politics Institute’s Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage continues this weekend:
The delegation will visit with survivors of the Mother Emanuel Church shooting, attending a Sunday service at the historic sanctuary, and learn about the 1969 Charleston strike of more than 400 African-American hospital workers against the all-white administrations of Medical College and Charleston County hospitals.