Even many South Carolinians barely remember the night of Feb. 8, 1968, when two unarmed black college students and a high school senior were killed, and 28 others injured, as state troopers opened fire at a civil rights demonstration. The first incident of its kind on an American campus, the news was swamped by the Tet Offensive a week earlier and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two months later.
There was no heavy media coverage like the kind the Jackson State killings in Mississippi received in 1970, no unforgettable photograph like the image that burned the Kent State shootings into the American consciousness that same year.
Among those unaware of the incident, in spite of growing up two miles from where it happened at S.C. State University in Orangeburg, was Calhoun Cornwell, a budding student playwright there. But he was gripped by classroom lectures on the '68 shootings that had become known as the Orangeburg Massacre, and in 2009, at the urging of classmates, he wrote a play about the event.
That drama, "Taking a Stand," was first performed at S.C. State last February and included then-senior Zachary Delano Middleton playing the role of his great-uncle, who was one of those killed.
Now Cornwell and his acting troupe - a mix of university alumni and current students - hope to tour the show to other historically black colleges. They also hope to influence South Carolina's state legislators, who are expected this winter to consider a bill to conduct the first state investigation of the shooting. South Carolina's governor in 1968, Robert McNair, asserted incorrectly that students and patrolmen had exchanged gunfire.
Efforts to bring the play to a wider audience began Oct. 15 on the main stage at the University of South Carolina at the invitation of school officials. It was an inevitably resonant production: black students playing an earlier generation struggling for civil rights, performing at a school that did not admit black students until 1963 and is only a few blocks from the State House grounds, where the Confederate flag still flies.
"This was such a divisive incident that even using the word 'massacre' to describe the shooting could provoke anger and arguments among white and black people for years," said Jack Bass, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston and author of "The Orangeburg Massacre" (Mercer University Press), a widely accepted history of the events. "But Calhoun's play is important because it's a way in to talking about those involved as human beings, to try to bring a story to life rather than arguing over it."
Showdown over bowling
The shootings grew out of a showdown two nights earlier when black students tried to integrate the nearby All-Star Bowling Lanes. The white owner refused to let them play, a position that drew support from many white people in town.
On Feb. 8, students lit a bonfire on campus, and as some of them watched it burn and others demonstrated, the troopers opened fire with pistols and shotguns that were loaded, contrary to crowd-control manuals, with lethal buckshot. Some officers claimed later that they had heard gunshots that apparently came from the crowd, but no evidence was found and several people contradicted the officers' accounts.
At the time, the shootings were connected to urban riots and campus unrest across the nation; the headline of the Orangeburg paper on Feb. 9 referred to "Rioting Negroes." But if the play confronts racism directly - with the owner of the bowling alley using racial epithets frequently - Cornwell also includes a few sympathetic white characters who stick up for the students, including a pained highway patrolman who expresses regret to another officer for opening fire.
Hearing 'everyone's side'
"It doesn't do anyone any good, and it certainly doesn't do the play's dramatic integrity any good, if this is just one big indictment of white people or white South Carolina," said Cornwell, 23, who graduated in the spring. "I spent a lot of time in the campus archives, reading clippings and histories, trying to understand the feelings of the white people involved. The play will only be credible if we're trying to be fair to everyone and hear everyone's side."
Drawing on archival records and oral histories with survivors and others, Cornwell imagined scenes of the young men - the college students Samuel Hammond and Henry Smith, and the high school student Delano Middleton - lighting up with laughter, falling in love and awakening to new ideas.
The play follows the college students to the bowling alley and, joined by Middleton, to the campus rally.
"What a play can do, more than a photograph or old newspaper clippings, is give you a full story about how these young men were full of spirit and how their concerns were about their lives ahead, not about picking a fight with police," said Zachary Delano Middleton, who was among those who asked Cornwell to write the play.