Politics & Government

Hodges: 'We deeply regret. . .'

Jim Hodges stood behind a podium at S.C. State University Thursday and delivered words many had waited 33 years to hear from a South Carolina governor.

"We deeply regret what happened here on the night of Feb. 8, 1968," Hodges told more than 1,400 people in the school's Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium. "The Orangeburg Massacre was a great tragedy for our state."

Hodges became the first governor to address the annual commemoration of that night, when white state troopers opened fire on a group of unarmed black students protesting their exclusion from a downtown bowling alley.Their shots killed three people and injured 27 others.

"Even today, the state of South Carolina bows its head, bends its knee and begins the search for reconciliation," Hodges said.

This also was the first year the wounded survivors were honored during the annual commemoration. Eight of them, plus relatives of the three who died, listened as Hodges asked for an end to the pain.

If the three who were killed - Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith and Delano Middleton -"were here today, they would see a city, and a state, and a nation where fear has waned and hope abides," Hodges said to the audience, packed into a 1,300-seat auditorium on the campus.

"They would witness the progress of our democracy, nod their heads and recognize that there is still much work left to do.

"And most importantly, they would urge us to continue down this path of reconciliation."

Hodges' speech highlighted an emotional day of tears and remembrance. After speeches and music, a small drum corps led a march to a nearby memorial where three new monuments were unveiled.

Each is a block of granite topped by a metal plate inscribed with the names of nine survivors. They encircle the existing monument to three slain students.

The shootings in 1968 came at the end of the third day of protests over the banning of blacks from the nearby All-Star Bowling Lanes.

Nine white troopers eventually were indicted in federal court for the shootings. All were acquitted.

Hodges is the seventh governor to serve since the incident, but the first to address a commemoration.

During his remarks, as he addressed the families of those who died, Hodges was on the verge of tears.

"As a parent, I can only imagine the sorrow you must have felt to lose a loved one. We wish we had the opportunity to know them as each of you knew them. We regret that they were taken from us at such a young age."

Hodges was given a standing ovation before he spoke, and his speech was well received by the families of the victims, survivors, and students who heard it.

"It's an important first step," said Cleveland Sellers, one of the 27 wounded that night. Sellers, jailed for inciting a riot, remains the only person convicted of any charge in connection with the shootings.

While Hodges didn't say it explicitly, Sellers took the governor's remarks as an apology. "I heard him say we apologize and it was a tragedy," Sellers said.

Hodges' spokesman, Morton Brilliant, said "everyone could take something different away from what he said."

Earlier, Sellers carried the auditorium crowd through a roller coaster of emotions, which was fitting, given his central role in the story. Shot and bleeding, Sellers was taken from the hospital to Columbia, where he was thrown into a cell in the state's notorious Central Correctional Institution.

He served seven months of a one-year sentence.

Thursday at the podium, Sellers was quickly overcome. He turned away and walked back toward his chair on the stage, where he embraced fellow survivor Jordan Simmons III.

After a moment of remembrance, Simmons and the Rev. Julian Clarke led Sellers back to the podium, back to the microphone, back to the memories. He returned to a standing ovation, but his soft voice and choked message, contrasted with their enthusiasm.

"We must tell the truth about this tragedy," Sellers said, head down.

Sellers returned to the past.

"I was vilified and, at some point, made to feel like a predator," said Sellers, now a professor at the University of South Carolina. "I don't look back with pity. I know that we were right. I am not angry because I know that justice will prevail."

Another poignant moment came when six Highway Patrol troopers stood in the middle of the auditorium and were greeted with applause.

University President Leroy Davis introduced the state troopers, saying the officers had asked to be there. Their predecessors, on the line along the grassy embankment 33 years ago, had opened fire on the students.

Davis remarked that none of the six was involved in the shooting, "but they thought it important to be here."

Later, after the speeches and the singing, students filed out into the bright sunshine of an unseasonably warm afternoon.

Ashley Ivens, 21, of Hampton, said Hodges touched a right combination. "His words were very respectful of the situation 33 years ago."

Her friend, Akina Broomfield, 25, of Summerville, said the governor's speech was "inspirational."

"It shows how far we have to go and how far we've come," Broomfield said.

Thirty-three years ago, South Carolina got thrown into the maelstrom of a generation of protests. Civil rights and Vietnam tugged at the country. Months after the S.C. State shootings, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.

Quoting King, Clarke, the campus minister, summed up the day in his opening prayer.

"The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption," Clarke said. "The end is creation of the beloved community where we live and work in harmony, in mutual respect for each other."