Friends of padre Steve’s World,
Thursday was the 50th anniversary of a massacre that most people have forgotten, even if they knew about it. On Febuary 8th 1968 three African American students were killed by police and twenty-seven others wounded while protesting on the campus of South Carolina State University. All were unarmed and none had resisted the police.
In February 2013, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas lamented the “race consciousness” and “sensitivity” of the present time as compared to when he was growing up in Savannah Georgia in the 1960s.
If he were not in a position of nearly unlimited power and influence where he can through a legal opinion overturn established laws regarding voters rights, equal opportunity and discrimination his memory of the era would be laughable. However, Justice Thomas seemed to have missed so much of what was happening to African Americans and others during the Jim Crow Era, the campaigns for resistance in the “segregation forever” movement and the wanton violence used on African Americans who simply wanted the same rights that other Americans enjoyed.
How a man as educated and supposedly aware as Thomas supposedly is can make such an absurd statement is beyond me. In fact it is ludicrous and speaks volumes about how Thomas would willingly cover up the gross injustices that were perpetrated against African-Americans.
The brutality of those in power against Blacks and their allies who demonstrated and campaigned for civil rights was widespread. If Justice Thomas did not hear about it in his childhood it was more likely that it was because Blacks had no voice in local or state government, no support in the local media and those who spoke out were brutalized, their homes, churches or businesses burned or or bombed, and for their trouble many went to jail. It took extraordinarily courageous men and women to stand up to the tyranny perpetrated by politicians, police, businessmen, and even church leaders at the local and State level, which were often directly connected to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in many parts of the South.
Thomas said that he was treated worse by the Northeastern Liberal Elites, than he was in his home town. That may be so, racial prejudice was not unique to the South, in fact some of the worst riots against desegregation occurred in Boston, not far from Thomas’ college Alma mater. In fact in some Northern cities racism and discrimination were as bad than in parts of the South.
Likewise there were incidents of violence in Watts California by the Los Angeles Police Department that helped trigger the Watts Riots. That being said, there can be no doubt that in terms of organized systemic discrimination, persecution, and violence, it was in the South where Blacks suffered the gravest injustice. The South was the unparalleled hotbed of resistance to change, and resistance to the simple desire of people to receive equal treatment under the law.
Today, even many whites remember some of those incidents; the burning of the Freedom Riders bus in Anniston Alabama, the baring of James Meredith from the University of Mississippi, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in which four little girls going to Sunday School were murdered, the brutal attacks on protestors in that same city that sent Dr Martin Luther King to jail, the murder of Medgar Evers, the murder of the Mississippi Civil Rights Workers, Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
We all know about those, well at least some of us do. They all occurred early in my lifetime and certainly if Thomas didn’t know about them as a child, he most certainly knows about them now. But the good Justice willingly chooses to ignore and treat them if they never happened, to Thomas, those were the “good ole days.”
But such an attitude denies history. It is inexcusable for any man or woman, of any race holding such an important position as Thomas to have, that of a Supreme Court Justice to hold such ahistoric and surprisingly for a Black man to hold such racist views. For man like Thomas, who in his office helps to make and interpret law that affects the civil rights of all Americans it is unconscionable. But then, after Anita Hill I never believed that Justice Thomas has a conscience.
But for each of those incidents there were many more, some very bloody which have been forgotten. I was reminded of one of those incidents when I was stationed at the Joint Forces Staff College and our Commandant, Rear Admiral John Smith talked about an incident that occurred at his alma mater, South Carolina State University in Orangeburg South Carolina, the Orangeburg Massacre. I think I had read about it once, but I had forgotten about it until he spoke of it during the Black History Month observance.
The massacre occurred on February 8th 1968 when students at the college began to protest for equal access to local businesses, especially at the only bowling alley in town, the All Star Lanes. The owner of the bowling alley refused to allow Blacks to patronize his establishment. In the days leading up to the massacre students were beaten by police as they engaged in peaceful protests in the town.
The protests continued on campus and hundreds of police and state troopers were dispatched to the scene as well as troops and armored vehicles from the South Carolina National Guard. On the campus about 200 students milled around a dying bonfire.
It was then that local and state police opened fire on a crowed of students at a bonfire. Contrary to the claims of the police none of the students were armed, three students were killed, and twenty seven wounded. Many of the students were shot in the back. The dead included a college Army ROTC Cadet named Henry Smith, another, a member of the college football team, Samuel Hammond who died reciting the 23rd Psalm with his mother at his side, and lastly the young Delano Middleton, a local high school student who had joined the protest.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to make false statements to Justice Department officials to cover for the State Troopers involved. When nine of the police officers went to trial for excessive use of force all were acquitted. But how could they be? Evidence was suppressed, false statements made and testimony of the victims discounted.
For years the subject was covered up, and disinformation spread by elected and police officials, including the governor who blamed the protest on outside “Black Power agitators” and who claimed that the protest took place off campus. Activist Cleveland Sellers was convicted of “inciting a riot” and spent seven months in jail. Twenty five years later he was pardoned. It was not until 2001 that a Governor, then Jim Hodges attended the school’s annual memorial and it was not until 2005 when then Governor Mark Sanford made a formal apology for the massacre.
The massacre received almost no coverage in the national media and was soon forgotten. The energy of most Americans was focused on protesting the Vietnam War, the Kent State Shootings and the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.and the deaths of a few Black students in South Carolina passed without notice in most of the county.
Justice Thomas and others, whether they be white or black may have historical amnesia, but history is history, even history that those in power desired to cover up.
History and justice, even belated justice matter because there are those in our country; not all in the South, who would like to roll back the protections that exist in law to protect African Americans and other minorities from institutional discrimination in matters of voters rights and equality. Even today there are business owners who openly boast of their refusal to serve minorities, and are hailed by some for doing so.
I encourage my readers to explore this subject, the book, The Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Bass and Jack Nelson published by Mercer University Press, a number of websites as well as the video here are good places to start.
Like Montgomery, Birmingham, Anniston, Memphis and Selma, Orangeburg though forgotten by most, still matters. Denial is not an option, it is up to us the living not to forget and never to let it happen again.