Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Today we are seeing more protests I think than anytime since the the height of Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, and the protests against the Vietnam War. Most of these have been peaceful, but some agitators have committed vandalism and violence at some venues which hurts the cause of the protests.
But that being said, protests, even peaceful ones are not appreciated by many people, people who sometimes forget that gathering in protest to make political statements is as American as apple pie. My God, this tradition goes back to the Boston Massacre when British soldiers fired on unarmed Colonists who were protesting unpopular laws made by Parliament. Now let me state that these men who we now consider Patriots weren’t exactly being peaceful. The were being verbally abusive to a small group of British soldiers, they were throwing rocks, snowballs, and assaulting them with sticks and clubs, so the outnumbered British soldiers opened fire in self defense with their single shot smooth-bore muskets, killing three and mortally wounding two others.
So protest goes back a long way and has been used for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, worker’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and hundreds of other causes from all sides of the political spectrum. The right of the freedom of association and political protest is protected under the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean that protesters have enjoyed the protection of government in many instances. I have been writing about the Civil Rights Movement for some time, and lately have been posting articles from various texts that I am writing about what African Americans suffered during era of slavery, but today I am taking a different tack, and writing about something more recent, the brutal and violent suppression of a protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina in February 1968. It’s not that well known, but it should be.
Of course, today, even many whites remember 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 protesters 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 brutal, and often deadly assaults on people exercising their Constitutional rights of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Association, and for many, the Freedom of Religion that motivated them to protest. . They all occurred early in my lifetime and certainly if we should. But for many, those days of segregation, discrimination, and persecution were the “good ole days” when people, Blacks, Hispanics, Women, Gays, and others “knew their place.”
But such an attitude denies history. It is inexcusable for any man or woman, of any race holding public office to hold such ahistoric, and un-American views, and then attempts to use the police power of the government to enforce what often are their racial prejudice, or religious prejudice.
But for each of the incidents we remember there were many more, some very bloody which have been forgotten. I was reminded of one of those last year when a speaker 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.
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 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.
Protests continued on campus, hundreds of police and state troopers were dispatched as well as armored vehicles from the National Guard. On campus about 200 students milled around a dying bonfire.
During a protest the local and state police opened fire on a crowed of students at a bonfire. Contrary to the claims of the police no student was armed, three students were killed, and twenty seven wounded. Many 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.
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. It was as if the lives of peaceful protesters didn’t matter, because they were Black.
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 forgotten. The energy of most Americans was focused on the Vietnam War, the Kent State Shootings and the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Justice Thomas 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. 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 a video that I have provided a link to here http://www.democracynow.org/2008/4/3/1968_forty_years_later_a_look are good places to start.
So when you see protesters, even those that you happen not to agree with, remember: their right to protest is part of who we are as Americans. It is a right that no-matter what our political view, that we should never let be trampled.
Like Montgomery, Birmingham, Anniston, Memphis and Selma, Orangeburg though forgotten by most, still matters. Never forget and do not let it happen again.