50 years after 3 students died in SC civil rights protest, survivors still ask ‘Why?’

On that cold February night, hundreds of students from South Carolina State University had gathered on campus for a third night of protests in the small town of Orangeburg.

Facing them were dozens of S.C. highway patrolmen backed by National Guard troops.

Sophomore Carolyn Lloyd was moving toward the front of the tense crowd when she heard the shots.

“It lit up the area just as if it were daylight,” recalls Lloyd, who began running and screaming in the ensuing chaos.

Senior Thomas Kennerly first thought they were warning shots. Then he heard the screams.

He hit the ground, finally getting up to help carry a wounded student to safety. Only later did he realize he was bleeding himself, having been hit by three shotgun pellets.

They’re among the survivors of the event known as the Orangeburg Massacre, which took place 50 years ago Thursday in the town 45 miles south of Columbia. In a burst of gunfire that lasted no more than nine seconds, three students from the historically black college were killed and more than two dozen injured. Scars linger half a century later.

“We still ask ourselves, ‘Why?’’ said Kennerly, of Lexington, S.C. “It was said we had weapons. We had no weapons. We had nothing to defend ourselves.”

Though it was the deadliest single incident of the civil-rights era in the Carolinas, the Orangeburg Massacre remains relatively obscure. It never garnered the national attention or outrage of Kent State, where National Guard troops shot and killed four students two years later. Eleven days after Kent State, two students were killed by police at Mississippi’s Jackson State College.

But Orangeburg took place on the heels of Vietnam’s Tet Offensive and the seizure of a U.S. Navy vessel by North Korea and just weeks before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“It got lost in the shuffle because so much was going on in 1968,” said William Hine, who was a first-year history professor at S.C. State that February and was there the night of shootings. “It’s still lost historically.”

Taylor Branch, a civil rights historian, said Orangeburg marked a change in the long-running drama.

“You could say that the national mood got tired of civil rights,” Branch said in an email. “Or that it hardened with intervening events such as war escalation in Vietnam, the Watts riots, the sudden rise of a black power movement, and (King’s) dramatization of northern white bigotry in Chicago.”

Nine white highway patrolmen were eventually tried for the murders but acquitted. The only person to serve time was Cleveland Sellers, a Harvard graduate and leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Wounded himself that night, he was convicted on a charge of rioting.

“My father is the only one-man riot in history,” said Bakari Sellers, a former S.C. legislator. “The state has placed that burden on him. The state has scapegoated him.”

History of protests

Protests were nothing new in Orangeburg.

In March 1960, not long after four students from N.C. A&T launched the sit-in movement at the Greensboro Woolworth, students from S.C. State and Claflin College began a sit-in at the Kress lunch counter in downtown Orangeburg. Greeted by police and fire hoses, nearly 400 were arrested, including a student named Jim Clyburn, now a Democratic leader in the U.S. House.

In 1963, hundreds of students were jailed when they tried to walk through the door of a segregated movie theater in Orangeburg. Among them was 16-year-old Ella Scarborough, now chair of the Mecklenburg County commissioners.

Bowling ally
Harry Floyd, owner of the segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg, S.C., over which civil rights demonstrations ended in the death of three students in 1968. AP

Five years later, the trouble started at a bowling alley.

Senior John Stroman, an avid bowler, brought friends to All-Star Bowling Lanes, where a sign advertised its whites-only policy. Turned away, he returned on Feb. 5 with about 30 students. After an uneventful protest they left.

But they returned the next night. The crowd grew to 300. According to Hine, the historian, a plate-glass window near the bowling alley entrance was shattered. Police waded into the crowd and beat students with wooden batons.

The next day, a Wednesday, Gov. Robert McNair mobilized the National Guard. Tensions ran high again that night when students gathered on campus near the highway and, Hine said, pelted passing vehicles with rocks and bottles.

By Thursday night, Orangeburg, with military vehicles and a heavy law enforcement presence, looked like an occupied city. Nerves were on edge that night when a crowd of students faced the highway patrol.

In the pandemonium that followed the gun shots, Bobby Eaddy, 17, hit the ground and felt a sting. Only later did he realize he’d been shot in the back, the slug resting a quarter-inch from his heart.

Eaddy 1968
Bobby Eaddy of Columbia. He was 17 when he was shot during the Orangeburg Massacre. Courtesy Bobby Eaddy

Lloyd ran back to her dorm, where she and other girls bolted the doors. They went to the Coke machine and took out as many bottles as they could. They broke the bottles to use as weapons if the doors were breached.

Red and gold shells

The next day, Cecil Williams walked around the site of the violence. Blood and debris covered the ground. But what caught his attention were the red and gold shotgun casings scattered around. He picked them up.

They would later help identify the nine patrolmen accused, and acquitted, of firing into the crowd.

Williams, then the school’s staff photographer, still has a picture of the red and gold shells. “I keep it as a reminder that freedom isn’t free,” he said. “You have to fight for it.”

Two demonstrators killed in the Orangeburg Massacre lie on the ground at the edge of South Carolina State in Orangeburg, S.C., on Feb. 8, 1968. AP

Clyburn sees a direct line from Orangeburg to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

“Orangeburg and Jackson (State) had both suffered similar situations as Kent State,” he told the Observer. “But they were black schools. And believe it or not, the powers that be did not value black lives as they did white lives.”

Survivors will mark the anniversary with a Thursday commemoration at S.C. State. Fifty years on, some are still processing it all.

After being shot in South Carolina, Kennerly joined the Army that year and was sent to Vietnam. “It left me with some really, really difficult things to deal with,” he said.

Lloyd, now a retired Charlotte teacher, said she remembers that racism is still out there.

Orangeburg sign
A sign at S.C. State University honors victims of the Orangeburg Massacre. The (Columbia) State file photo

And Eaddy, of Columbia, is still waiting for the state to formally acknowledge the tragedy.

“The thing that bothers me more than anything else is the state of South Carolina has never really acknowledged its wrongdoing,” he said.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

New Orangeburg documentary

At 7 p.m. Thursday, WBTV (Channel 3) will air a new documentary by reporter Steve Crump. “Orangeburg, 50 Years Later” tells the story from the perspective of the people who were there.