The Orangeburg Massacre: Experience & History

In the SCPC, a researcher can look at first hand responses to important events.  One of the most important and one of the least understood is the series of events in Orangeburg on 7 and 8 February 1968. 

On those two days, some 200 students at South Carolina State College, most prominently and famously Cleveland Sellers, protested the segregation of the local bowling alley near campus.  There was confrontation with local police at the bowling alley on 7 February, and an officer was injured; then protesters were chased back to campus and order was restored. 


National Guard troops in Orangeburg, SC, 1968
(photo by Bill Barley)

The next day, 8 February, a larger demonstration on campus, featuring a bonfire on a vacant lot, developed.  South Carolina Army National Guard (SCARNG) troops, State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agents, and the highway patrol all came in force, armed with live ammunition, to ensure order on 8 February.   In that second day of demonstration, things “got ugly” as we southerners say, and three students were killed, and 27 were injured.  Generally, black people and a handful of liberals call the violence The Orangeburg Massacre.   Other people, especially white officials then in authority, usually called it The Orangeburg Riot.


Governor Robert McNair in 1967

William Jennings Bryan Dorn, then US Congressman from Third District, Robert E. McNair, then Governor, Strom Thurmond, then US Senator, and John Bolt Culbertson, attorney and reformist, all have papers at SCPC in which they discuss the events.  Of that group, only Culbertson initially called it a massacre, and the other people, especially Congressman Dorn (who of course was nowhere near Orangeburg that February) tended to blame the student demonstrators.  John Carl West, then Lieutenant Governor, oversaw an investigation into the actual events but also into root causes of the student demonstrations and possible overreaction by law enforcement officials, and West began to see the controversy as a Massacre.


Jack Bass with copies of The Orangeburg Massacre on the shelf behind him

Journalist nonpareil Jack Bass, whose autograph correspondence is scattered through SCPC collections, was quite sure that it was a massacre, and he and veteran journalist Jack Nelson published The Orangeburg Massacre, reissued with revisions in 2003 by Mercer University Press.  In that same year of reissuing his study, Jack Bass worked as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and produced “Documenting the Orangeburg Massacre” for Harvard’s educational serial, Nieman Reports.

For the record, I think it was a massacre, but looking at everyone’s papers reminds me of my own passage through those times, and my own participant/observer role in such things. 

In spring semester 1968, I was a journalism major at USC, and I took a class in which each scholar had a “beat” to cover for a “daily” newspaper that we wrote up—although this “daily” never went beyond the eyes of our instructors Professors Watson, Crutchfield, and McElveen.  My beat was the Office of the Governor, and each week I went in to interview Press Secretary Wayne Seal.  I never actually met Governor McNair, but read statements he had produced and then talked with Wayne.  The Governor often came to campus, and I heard and saw him often in what we now call simpler days (before the spring and summer 1968 assassinations and race riots). 

gov staff

Governor McNair with some of his staff, including press secretary Wayne Seal (standing second from left)
(photo by Bill Barley)

I had already formed the opinion that Jack Bass was the greatest journalist ever to work in my state.  I had also formed the opinion that he was close second to Greenwood’s Harry Watson for the title “bravest journalist in South Carolina.”  I admired Wayne Seal, and characterize him as one of the finest men I ever met and someone of unimpeachable honesty. 

In my interviews with Wayne Seal, he told me that students on the scene had gotten out of hand and threw rocks and bricks and suchlike at officials until one of the police, David Sheally (possibly some relation of my wife, a Bowers related to Shealy and  Sheally and Shealey) was injured.  Seal said that the officials present at the bowling alley off campus on 7 February gathered up Officer Sheally and chased demonstrators out of the business establishment and back to campus with minimal but appropriate threat of force. 

wounded student

Aftermath: tending to wounded students at the site of the bonfire
(photo by Bill Barley)

He also told me that the following day, 8 February, students gathered again, building a bonfire on a vacant lot and making quite a disturbance.   He said that an appropriate level of force was used, and that he and the Governor both regarded it as a “tragedy” (McNair’s word, repeated with sincere emphasis by Seal).  He also said that Lieutenant Governor West was developing an in-depth study of the root causes of the problems that led to a demonstration that led to violence.  In other words, McNair and West agreed that forces of racism were the indirect cause of whatever happened, regardless of how well law enforcement people behaved. 

In the Dorn papers, I see that over the ensuing months the Congressman read John West’s report and began to take a more nuanced approach to racism and the ensuing demonstrations.  He also began to direct Great Society funding toward Orangeburg’s black community and to direct funding toward the cash-starved SC State College.

Wayne Seal seemed genuinely upset and convinced me that he and all Governor McNair’s people were sincerely sorry that any students were injured.   The USC class featured constantly running “ticker tape” wire releases from the Associated Press and from United Press International, and these stories initially affirmed Wayne Seal’s version. 


SC National Guard Troops arrive in Orangeburg on the night of February 8, 1968
(photo by Bill Barley)

I wrote up the story that way, affirming my own belief in Governor McNair’s version; as I often did, I attempted historical background and spent so much time trying to explain socioeconomic roots of the demonstration (including an interview with economist John Kenneth Galbraith, then in town to give a speech at USC), that my story was too long, too unwieldy and actually did little to explain much about what had happened in Orangeburg or what the Governor was doing about it.  In fact, that story plus another longish interview feature with Professor Galbraith led Professor Crutchfield to command me (you could do that to students in those days at Carolina) to leave journalism and become a history major—certainly a career changing piece of advice and certainly brilliant counseling and effective advising.

Among things that troubled me then and still trouble me now was Governor McNair’s insistence, reinforced effectively person to person by Wayne Seal, that the shootings had all happened “off campus,” where my hero Jack Bass was insisting that the shootings happened in the middle of the State College campus.


The book by Jack Bass

Time passed, and the summer of 1969 came on.  The University was already officially integrated, but Lyndon Johnson arranged a special program in which transfer students who were black (in that day we still said Negro and would not adopt black or African American for another year or two—Martin Luther King Jr. seems to have gone to his grave still calling himself and his people Negro) could take summer courses while getting accustomed to the campus. 

A large number of these students, “large” at USC in 1969 being about 50, were scheduled to move into the old towers (H, J, K, L, M, and N, six ugly buildings that once stood where the handsome Honors College complex now stands).  We white students were given the option of staying or moving to different quarters.  My roommate David Ronald Lewis of Easley turned to me and asked if I was afraid of them (he did not say Negro and he did not say black and our mothers would have killed us if either of us had used a racial slur), but the way he said them was not fully Christian.  I said loudly, “they did not scare me.”   I spoke more from bravado than liberalism.  And so we stayed.  Soon we formed friendships with the new students.  Several of us arranged to live on the same dormitory floor in the towers the following fall semester, 1969.

Among my new friends was Charles Miller, a young man who had started academic life at SC State College, was drafted, and then came back with GI money to attend USC.  Charles had his own version of the events at Orangeburg, though he was in the army by the time of the events.  I was drawn to all of it, and talked and talked with everybody I could find. 

As a “newcomer” history major, I studied with Dr. Thomas E. Terrill, then brand new at USC, and he arranged a number of “rap sessions” to discuss race relations generally as well as giving us interesting assignments to read.  Soon, I concluded that Governor McNair was a good man who had misled us about where the violence happened—clearly it was on the campus—and who was mostly at fault—too many wounds were in the back or on feet to suggest that the demonstrators had made a frontal charge at police and SCARNG unit members.  The long prison term for Cleveland Sellers began to seem an incredible injustice.

My own life grew more complex.  I joined a SCARNG unit, in Lyman, the mill village where I spent the first three years of my life.  I waited to undergo boot camp, but was “trained” for riot control during my transitional status.  I heard the SCARNG version of the Orangeburg disturbances.  Some guardsmen bragged about what they had done.   Most insisted that they were badly prepared for such a demonstration, and inappropriately armed. 


The McKissick Library, now Museum, as it stands today

In spring of 1970, I was in the oddest position imaginable.  Antiwar demonstrations on campus attracted me as news events and “history in the present,” but I was a member of the Lyman SCARNG unit that might have to defend the campus.   One evening I threw a beer bottle at a wall of one of the towers, and I realized how I was part of the National Guard’s problem—as well as a guardsman.  I retreated to the McKissick Library (then our main library) and that night a SCARNG captain came in to tell us we had to leave at once or spend the night in the library.  I had a paper due, and liked to stay up all night, so I simply read books in McKissick and wrote feverishly.  They opened the doors at dawn, and I stepped onto a campus shrouded in drifting tear gas and covered in trash, with some broken windows and some vandalism.  My eyes stung, and I could have cried in any case to see my beloved USC in such a wreck. I felt bad for student demonstrators, and I felt worse for the guardsmen who had to defend property and protect lives.  I wondered then—and still today—what I would have done if called upon to protect the campus.  The Lyman unit was not called, and we all graduated that June without further incident.


Lt. Governor John Carl West, who oversaw an investigation into the shootings at Orangeburg

Now in looking at Congressman Dorn’s speeches immediately after the fact that February and March and reviewing Governor McNair’s statements and then reading the carefully measured words of the John West study, I realize my good fortune.  No one wrote down my own responses on February 8, 1968.  No one preserved my odd J-school story that started with socioeconomic conditions in colonial times and never quite got to the point of the demonstrations in Orangeburg.  No one knows that I threw a beer bottle at one of the towers buildings.  No demonstrators knew I was in the National Guard. 

All of us have changed much since those days.  Wayne Seal perished in a plane crash in Charlotte, ending a promising political career and costing me a friend and an “oral history source.”  Bryan Dorn remade himself, giving a particularly brave speech defending school busing—the only member of the SC Delegation to so speak and the only Deep South Congressman to so speak.  Robert McNair was certainly better than he sounded that February, and I suppose historians will reevaluate him accordingly.  Strom Thurmond spectacularly remade himself, becoming a highly dependable Senator for black as well as white “constituent services.”  And Thurmond voted for the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act—and apparently had something to do with President Reagan signing it after initial reluctance. 

Jack Bass gets better and better as a scholar, I suppose now regarding himself as historian more than journalist.  The towers are gone, and I have no idea where Charles Miller.  David Lewis, I have not seen in years, but I hear of him, and I know he was voted into the Easley High School Football Hall of Fame.  Professor Crutchfield moved to Syracuse University, and is now retired.  Professor Terrill gets better and better and also frequents the SCPC, currently working—of course—on a study of John Bolt Culbertson, a hero long dead.  Cleveland Sellers was pardoned and came here to USC as a good professor before taking over presidency of Voorhees College.  I saw him and shook his hand in Pawleys Island recently.

And all of you can use the resources of the SCPC to make up your own minds about the tragic events at SC State on 7 and 8 February and the months thereafter.

Contributed by John Herbert (Jack) Roper

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