Student marchers near the All-star Bowling Alley, Feb. 1968. Photo by Cecil J. Williams from his book, Freedom & Justice; the three men shot to death later that night during the Orangeburg massacre, Delano Middleton, Henry Smith, and Samuel Hammond, Jr.
It was the night of Feb. 8, 1968. White S.C. Highway Patrolmen fired on black students at what was then South Carolina State College. They killed three and wounded 27.
In the 38 years since the Orangeburg Massacre, the political and cultural forces in the state have done what they do best — buried the unpleasant past, or rewritten it to a more palatable flavor. But like a bad dream, this incident keeps coming back, in books and a radio drama. And now in a motion picture from Showtime Networks in early stages of production.
As yet, the film has no script or cast, no title or premiere date. But Showtime has bought the rights to two books dealing with the shootings and a veteran screenwriter has been hired to work up the story.
"The process has begun," says South Carolina native and filmmaker Frank Beacham, from his office in New York City. Beacham's book, Whitewash: A Southern Journey Through Music, Mayhem & Murder, is one of the sources of the story. The other is The Orangeburg Massacre by College of Charleston professor Jack Bass and journalist Jack Nelson.
Screenwriter Frank Military will soon come to South Carolina to interview as many survivors and witnesses as possible in developing the script, Beacham says. Those survivors and witnesses are growing fewer, and the story — like so much of South Carolina history — is on the brink of being forgotten by all except those it happened to.
"It's one of those stories that does not get told in South Carolina," Beacham says. "There are so many stories like that."
The shootings were the culmination of four nights of protest by S.C. State students against the All Star Bowling Lanes, which refused to serve blacks. Tensions mounted over successive nights, as the students were met with increasing numbers of police, National Guard troops, and jeering whites.
Violence erupted on the night of Feb. 7, with police brutally beating several students. When students came out to the bowling alley the next night, state troopers were carrying loaded guns and had been told by their commander to be ready to protect themselves. Political forces in Columbia and Orangeburg were already generating stories that the bowling alley protests were part of a Communist conspiracy and the students were being led by "outside agitators."
On the bloody night, students pelted police with rocks and other objects. One officer was hit in the face and badly injured. In the tense moments that followed, dozens of officers opened fire. It lasted nine seconds, and, before the smoke had cleared, the official cover-up was underway.
Officials immediately told the media that the white troopers fired in self-defense, after first being fired upon by students.
There is no evidence that any students had guns, but the official cover-up continues, Beacham says. "It's still a continuing, unresolved story. It continues because fundamental issues have never been dealt with. There was never an investigation of what happened or why. The case is still open."
Bass, the award-winning writer and journalist who helped introduce Strom Thurmond's illegitimate black daughter to the world, agrees.
"The state should have an official investigation and make an official report, not so much to lay blame, but to learn and draw closure," says Bass. "Give all parties a chance to ask questions and tell what they know."
Perhaps the new movie will hasten that day. It will certainly bring attention to the state and to the events of that February, says Bass.
The Orangeburg Massacre came at the beginning of a climactic year. Before it was over, 1968 would see the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, race riots would shatter American cities, and anti-war protests would disrupt the Democratic National Convention. The year closed out with the election of Richard Nixon as president. In all the rage and violence, the Orangeburg Massacre slipped through the cracks of history.
Now it may be rediscovered by a new generation that is ready to deal with it, Bass says. He sees increasing evidence of new interest. Several high school students have interviewed him for oral history projects on the massacre and the state Department of Education just purchased 500 copies of his book for use in public schools.
In the early 1990s, Frank Beacham developed a radio drama based on the events surrounding the massacre; it has aired several times on S.C. Public Radio.
The S.C. State community keeps the memory alive by holding a memorial service on campus every Feb. 9. There was a major reunion in 2001, in which a number of people gave their accounts for an oral history. At that reunion, Gov. Jim Hodges made a personal apology for the shootings, but at this time, the state has yet to make an official apology.
No date has been set, but Beacham hopes the Showtime movie will be ready to air by the end of the year. But for those waiting for the truth about the Orangeburg Massacre, it cannot come soon enough.