Orangeburg, America’s Forgotten Tragedy : Civil rights: Looking back at the killings 25 years ago may give a lesson on police violence.

Frank Beacham, a New York-based writer, wrote and directed the American Public Radio docudrama "The Orangeburg Massacre," to air on KCRW (89.9-FM) Sunday at 9 p.m

An act of racism in a small college town leads to peaceful protest by frustrated black students. The state’s governor, elected on a platform of racial moderation, responds with a vast show of armed force. Each side misreads the other, escalating the conflict. Then, in a peak of emotional frenzy, nine white highway patrol officers open fire on the unarmed students. In less than 10 seconds, the campus becomes a bloodbath.

On Feb. 8, 1968--25 years ago--three black South Carolina State College students were killed and 27 others wounded by officers firing into a supposedly rioting crowd. Most were shot from the rear, some in the back and in the soles of their feet. None carried weapons.

The Orangeburg Massacre, as the shooting in Orangeburg, S.C., has become known, remains an open wound in the South and one of the least known and most misunderstood stories of the civil-rights era. Yet the massacre is a chilling history lesson on the horror of law enforcement motivated by racism and hatred.


To grasp the Orangeburg story, one must turn the clock back to South Carolina in 1968. The violence occurred in a Southern state unique for its record of racial peace. Gov. Robert E. McNair was very proud of that image; it had made him a national figure. He was a leading contender that year to be the Democratic vice presidential running mate of Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

In an attempt to preserve the state’s racially moderate image, a smoke screen of official lies and evasions went up to conceal the facts about the shooting. McNair falsely portrayed the incident as an exchange of gunfire between students and police and blamed the student disturbances on black-power advocates. FBI officials, friendly with the officers, did a superficial investigation, obscuring the truth.

Determined to get the truth, Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark mounted a federal investigation. But he found key evidence compromised by the FBI; his U.S. attorney based in Columbia wouldn’t cooperate and a state grand jury refused to indict the officers. Clark charged the officers with depriving the students of their civil rights by killing them. A South Carolina federal court jury found them not guilty.

Most of the nation’s news media accepted South Carolina’s version of a two-way gun battle at Orangeburg. Two reporters, however, dug deeper. They reported that there was no gunfire from the student demonstrators in the period immediately before the shooting, that two of three dead students were shot in the back and that one who died was beaten and dragged away after being shot. Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times and Jack Bass of the Charlotte Observer slowly stripped away South Carolina’s cover-up and told the true story in their 1970 book, “The Orangeburg Massacre.”

McNair, now a successful attorney, claims not to have read the Nelson/Bass book and has repeatedly over the past 25 years refused interviews on Orangeburg. He is the only living former South Carolina official who knows the full story of what happened on that tragic night and in the days that followed.

Clark, however, is not so reticent. “The cause of the incident was police criminal acts; the provocation for the incident was an absurd, provocative display of force,” Clark said. “They committed murder. That’s a harsh thing to say, but they did it. The police lost their self-control. We are lucky more weren’t killed.”


The former attorney general said McNair responded to Orangeburg with a huge show of force because that was the politically expedient thing to do in 1968. “Fear, anger, a sense of self-righteousness to justify hating began to be seen clearly as successful politics,” Clark said.

Today, we have the luxury of viewing one of darkest sagas of the civil-rights movement from a 25-year distance. With this unclouded view, the tragedy of Orangeburg offers some timely lessons about racially motivated police violence.