The Forgotten Martyrs of Orangeburg
By Monica Moorehead, Workers World, 1995
Few people have heard of the 1968 Orangeburg massacre. One has to search high and low to find information on this event, compared to other civil-rights developments during the 1960s.
For example, whole books have been written on the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march in 1965 and the Birmingham, Ala., church bombings in 1963.
What was this massacre and what is its significance for today?
INSPIRED BY SIT-INS
First of all, it is important to go back some eight years earlier, to Feb. 1, 1960.
As reported in last week's Workers World, the sit-in protests initiated by the African American student movement against racist segregation began in Greensboro, N.C. These protests, which implemented the nonviolent tactics developed during the 1950s in the Montgomery bus boycott, spread throughout the South, including South Carolina.
In central South Carolina is the small city of Orangeburg, home to South Carolina State University, a predominantly Black public college. The impact of the sit-in protests in Greensboro did not escape Orangeburg. South Carolina State students organized a protest of a thousand people against racism in February 1960.
As a result, the racist authorities arrested 350 students, placing them in an open-air stockade in the rain. In a city that even today numbers no more than 14,000, this was a significant demonstration. In one account, the students sang patriotic songs and held a prayer meeting during their detention.
In April 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded. Its roots sprang from the sit-in experiences in the South among students from mostly Black colleges.
During the early days of SNCC, its main political orientation was to conduct mass struggles in the South as well as the North for basic democratic rights within the framework of bourgeois legality. Nonviolent resistance to the violent reactions from the white police and the repressive state in general was ingrained into every SNCC organizer who was sent to organize others on Black college campuses.
But that political orientation shifted in a progressive direction in May 1966 when Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Toure) became the chairperson of SNCC and raised a new slogan: "Black Power." This slogan meant many things to many Black people--everything from taking pride in one's African heritage to challenging the racist status quo with militant tactics.
BLACK POWER MOVEMENT
One thing is for sure. The "Black Power" era electrified the Black masses in the country and especially on Black college campuses and sent shock waves throughout the capitalist government.
At South Carolina State University, the students had organized the Black Awareness Coordinating Committee. It was a militant group that countered the more moderate program of the NAACP campus chapter and was a loose affiliate of SNCC.
The BACC worked closely with SNCC field official Cleveland Sellers on a successful boycott of classes to protest reactionary campus rules and the dismissal of progressive white teachers.
On Feb. 5, 1968, the students protested against a lily-white bowling alley. The students organized another protest when white city officials refused to meet their demands.
On Feb. 7, the students began to rebel in the streets by attacking police cars. The rebellion lasted until the next day.
The police along with the National Guard were called in to occupy the campus. The repressive forces of the state began to fire upon the unarmed students as they sat around a bonfire seeking warmth. Three students were killed and 33 wounded.
To justify the shootings, news accounts circulated the falsehood that a student had fired on a police officer. No gun was ever produced.
City and state officials blamed Sellers and the BACC, already under FBI surveillance, for "inciting a riot." Sellers was arrested and indicted on these bogus charges, but was never brought to trial.
After a federal investigation, nine members of the state police were indicted. But they were later acquitted on the federal charge of depriving demonstrators of their constitutional rights.
These acquittals gave racist cops throughout the South the green light to murder in cold blood any oppressed person who fought back.
The Orangeburg massacre exposed the terrorist role of the state in capitalist society of keeping the most oppressed disenfranchised. But it also shows how social consciousness is elevated by the struggle.
The BACC was much influenced by SNCC as well as by the teachings of Malcolm X. The lessons of the Watts rebellion in 1965 and other uprisings were not lost on these heroic students.
Their struggles can't be found in the mainstream history books. But they will never be forgotten and will inspire future generations.
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