The Orangeburg Massacre 1968
Sun. Feb. 8, 3 p.m.
Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium
300 College St. NE
South Carolina State University, Orangeburg
The 40th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre came and went last year, marked by obligatory newspaper stories, a symbolic reenactment, and a daylong talkfest on ETV radio.
But there's one reason to suspect the 41st anniversary of this misunderstood tragedy could wind up ranking as a more significant event in this long, sorry saga. The 2009 observance, both in Orangeburg and in Charleston, will be marked by the premiere of Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, a 56-minute documentary film by one of the country's leading nonfiction production companies.
Though one of the most violent and senseless moments of the Civil Rights era, the killings of three black college students (27 more were wounded) on the South Carolina State University campus has long been an orphan within the movement's narrative history. Other confrontations took on national significance, but Orangeburg simply disappeared beneath the chaos of 1968, the most tumultuous year since the end of World War II.
The events in Orangeburg blew up like a sudden thunderstorm in a state that had prided itself on its "racial harmony" during the Civil Rights era. A rally to desegregate a bowling alley turned into a melee with police. The governor sent in state police officers and National Guardsmen. And on Feb. 8, at least nine of those officers fired buckshot into a crowd of students.
Afterward, the Associated Press erroneously reported that the killings took place during an exchange of heavy gunfire and state officials blamed everything on "outside agitators." The officers who fired on the students were later acquitted of a misdemeanor, and the only man to do jail time was activist Cleveland Sellers, convicted of "riot" under the most dubious of circumstances.
Judy Richardson knew something about the on-campus killings — a precursor to shootings at Kent State and Jackson State — from her days working on the groundbreaking Civil Rights documentary series Eyes on the Prize in the 1980s. But Orangeburg didn't make the series' final cut. The story re-entered her life when she joined Bestor Cram's Northern Light Productions in 2001.
"Bestor came up to me and said this was something he thought I'd be interested in," Richardson says. What she found was a powerful story that few people knew about, much less understood. "I probably did five years of research on the Orangeburg Massacre before we got funding."
The money came via Independent Television Service (ITVS) in 2006. With enough cash to begin serious work, Cram and Richardson teamed up as co-producers to do the heavylifting: Combing through archives, assembling images, reviewing rare historical footage, conducting and staging interviews. All told, Northern Light made three extended shooting trips to South Carolina.
Their connections to the story run deep. Cram, who was a Marine officer when the massacre took place, spent 1968 in Vietnam. The Orangeburg protests began when a black Vietnam veteran, just back from Southeast Asia, was denied entrance to the bowling alley. Richardson was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as "Snic." Sellers, the "outside agitator" that state officials scapegoated, was a fellow member.
Cram and Richardson devoted their careers to telling socially relevant stories via television documentaries. And while the general story of the civil rights movement has become better known, the two were surprised to learn how little South Carolinians knew about those three fateful days.
"Not just whites, but many African-Americans, even those who remember that time, had this misinformed idea of what had happened," Richardson says. "It's been known for years that the students never fired at (anyone). The FBI came out and concluded that no shots were fired from the campus. But you have all these older African-Americans who still believe that it was just these violent students."
Then-S.C. Gov. Bob McNair, who had advocated a "moderate" approach to race-relations, was shaken by the events, but struggled to understand his role in what happened. "The governor sent in the National Guard," Cram says. "They clearly misread what having an army with bullets was all about."
Northern Light recorded the last interview McNair gave on the topic before his death. "I think it was very revealing," Cram says. "His life changed because of this. I think he recognized that this should not have happened. I think he was trying to figure out why it had happened. And I think his remorse had continued to grow."
But the most emotional moment in the documentary for Cram is contained in an image. "There's this picture from the aftermath of the shooting, and the dead and wounded are lying on the ground like debris, with these law enforcement officers standing there. And they're really not paying attention to the people, to these bodies on the ground. There's a disconnect there, between the law enforcement officers and these people who've just been shot, and that's just very disturbing."
Northern Light remains in negotiations for a national broadcast date, but Cram promised that the documentary will be broadcast in South Carolina.
Even today, the story struggles to be heard.