50 Years After The Orangeburg Massacre, Looking For Justice In South Carolina

Feb 11, 2018
Originally published on February 12, 2018 2:42 pm

Fifty years ago this week, three people were killed and more than 20 wounded during a university demonstration against racial segregation at a bowling alley in South Carolina.

"In 1968, four years after the civil rights bill was passed, the owner of the bowling alley put up a sign in the window saying 'members only,' " recalls Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights coordinator, who recently spoke with South Carolina Public Radio. He was shot during what would become known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

Sellers said that the "members only" sign caught the eye of students at the historically black South Carolina State University.

"The students at South Carolina State had a long and very rich history of engagements in civil rights activities," he said. "So it was like waving a red flag in front of the students."

Tensions had already been high after multiple days of protests when Sellers arrived on campus to talk to the students. He wanted to try and help avoid conflict with the police. But when he got there, the police had already drawn their guns.

"When I got to the group that's when, you know, the firing started up," he said. "And it was just popping and shooting — you could smell the gunfire. And I got hit. When I went down, I almost did a spread eagle, almost like a belly flop getting onto the ground. And I could also hear the students saying, 'Help me, I've been hit, I'm shot.' "

Three African-American men were killed that night. The federal government later charged state police officers with using excessive force at a campus protest. All nine defendants were acquitted.

But Sellers went to prison on trumped up riot charges. He was pardoned 25 years later. Sellers says misinformation at the time — like reports of student gunfire — convinced many people that the police acted correctly. There has never been an official state investigation into what happened that night.

"Justice was not served and still has not been served," Sellers says. "I keep being hopeful that someone will come along and get the state to look at the Orangeburg Massacre. Let's get the truth straight and do what we need to do to deal with the pain and move on to a point where we can get past this."

Until then, Sellers says the Orangeburg massacre will remain an open wound.

Tut Underwood is a reporter with South Carolina Public Radio.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fifty years ago this week, three people were killed and more than 20 wounded during a demonstration against racial segregation at a bowling alley in South Carolina.

CLEVELAND SELLERS: In 1968, four years after the Civil Rights Bill was passed, the owner of the bowling alley put a sign in the window saying members only.

SIMON: Cleveland Sellers was a civil rights coordinator who recently spoke with South Carolina Public Radio. He was shot during what would become known as the Orangeburg massacre. He said that members only sign caught the attention of students at the historically black South Carolina State University.

SELLERS: The students of South Carolina State had a long and very rich history of engagements in civil rights activities. So it was like waving a red flag in front of the students.

SIMON: Tensions were high after four days of protests. Cleveland Sellers was on campus to talk to the students and try and help avoid conflict with the police. When he got there, he discovered the police had already drawn their guns.

SELLERS: When I got to the group, that's when, you know, the firing started up. And it was just popping and shooting. You could smell the gunfire. And I got hit. When I went down, I almost did a spread-eagle - almost like a belly-flop getting onto the ground. And I could also hear the students saying, help me. I've been hit. I'm shot.

SIMON: Three African-American men were killed that night. The federal government later charged state police officers with using excessive force at a campus protest. All nine defendants were acquitted. But Cleveland Sellers went to prison on trumped-up riot charges. Twenty-five years later, he was pardoned. Mr. Sellers says that misinformation at the time, like reports of student gunfire, convinced many people that the police had acted correctly. There has still never been an official state investigation into what really happened that night.

SELLERS: Justice was not served and still has not been served. I keep being hopeful that someone will come along and get the state to look at the Orangeburg massacre. Let's get the truth straight and do what we need to do to deal with the pain and move on to a point where we can get past this.

SIMON: Until then, Cleveland Sellers says the Orangeburg massacre will remain an open wound. Our thanks to South Carolina Public Radio's Tut Underwood.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOWERCASE NOISES' "PASSAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.