No One Remembers—A Book Review of The Orangeburg Massacre

by Donald R Barbera

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We're finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming,

Four dead in Ohio.—Neil Young—Ohio

On Monday, May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired more than 60 rounds into a group of unarmed student protesters at Kent State University killing four and wounding nine others. The lyrics in the verse above, written by Neil Young and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, immortalized the Kent State tragedy. That date still brings reverence, but two other similar incidents largely escaped public attention and fell into the dustbin of history.

Ten days after the Kent State shootings, police in Jacksonville, Mississippi, opened fire on a group of African American student protesters at Jackson State University, killing two and injuring twelve. Police said they responded to sniper fire, but the FBI no evidence of sniper fire. According to official reports, police fired more than 100 shots in less than a minute. The Kent State massacre brought national attention while the Jackson State killings received far less. Nevertheless, in response to the shootings more than 4 million went out on “strike,” closing hundreds of universities, colleges and even high schools across the nation.

As much attention that poured out after the shootings, an event that happened almost two years earlier went virtually unnoticed. On February 8, 1968, police in Orangeburg, South Carolina, fired into a crowd of African Americans killing three and injuring twenty-eight, hitting most in the back. The shooting, which became known as the Orangeburg Massacre occurred three years and eight months after the Civil Rights Act became law.

“The Orangeburg Massacre” by Jack Bass and Jack Nelson is a fact filled and startling recount of violence of Southern police to what by all accounts was a student protest. The book describes how Orangeburg, South Carolina police fired into a crowd protesting local segregation at a bowling alley. Jack Bass, bureau chief for the Charlotte Observer covered the tragedy as it unfolded.

Bass and Nelson give a riveting account of the entire scene that left three people dead and many wounded. For the reader, The Orangeburg Massacre reveals a piece of American history that was largely overlooked by the national media, but Bass and Nelson recreate a tragic incident that, unfortunately occurred on other college campuses around the country.

The books reveals that nine Orangeburg police officers accused of using excessive force all received acquittals, but Cleveland Sellers, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist went to jail after being convicted of inciting a riot. He was the only person convicted and imprisoned after the killings. Nelson also points that not only did the shooting occur, but also witnesses at the scene saw at least two instances of women being clubbed while another police officer held them.

If nothing else, the book gives the reader a sense of harsh reality of what occurred at the site of the killings. It is not for the faint of heart, as neither Bass nor Nelson shy away from graphic description of the carnage at the scene, or at the hospital where gunshot victims were treated including one who died. Nelson, a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution at that time actually viewed the medical records of those brought in for treatment.

First published in 1970, The Orangeburg Massacre is considered the definitive story of what actually occurred that dreadful night and it is accepted by historians as the definitive account of the incident. The story that went unnoticed by the national media receives meticulous examination by Bass and Nelson, both white men.

Like most blacks in the United States, I was aware of the incident and how it unfolded. For me, the book is a reaffirmation of what I already knew, but as first time reader, Bass and Nelson pry unwilling eyes open to what really happened at Orangeburg that calamitous night in 1970. If you seek you to know more about significant events in African American history, The Orangeburg Massacre is a startling and informative read of the odds black students often face in the South.

Jack Bass, was a 1966 Nieman Fellow, as Columbia, South Carolina bureau chief for The Charlotte Observer covered the tragedy as it unfolded in 1968. He received the 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. Jack Nelson, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times.

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Comment by Donald R Barbera on February 8, 2014 at 8:21am
Sorry to hear that ignorance and anger reigned at that time on both sides for some. Like you, I haven't escaped the South. I'm in Texas. As a former regional sales manager, I covered every state in the confederacy. I was living just over 100 miles from the confederate capitol in Richmond. Since I was in northern Virginia, about 15 miles from DC, I enjoyed my years living there. I lived through all the turmoil of the 60s and 70s.
Comment by Ted Foureagles on February 7, 2014 at 8:00pm

I lived in the South in the Sixties, as I do again now, and remember the Orangeburg Massacre.  It wasn't as big deal in the press -- just black kids, after all.  My family had our business vandalized and a cross burned on our lawn in Granite Quarry, NC in 1966 because Dad gave business credit to our black neighbors and refused to join the Church.  One summer night in 1968, shortly after Dr. King's assassination, I was pulled from a car by a roaming gang of angry black youths, beaten and left for dead.  My back has been a mess ever since.  They later that night killed a cab driver, were caught and convicted.  The "Summer of Love" in '69 dawned, for us, as a realization that we had to stop consuming one another.  It seemed to be working for a while, at least from my stoned perspective.

Now when I contact my old school chums back there it soon becomes evident that they are almost universally hard right-wing racist Christian fundamentalist -- Tin Soldiers.  So much right there to learn, and so much lost.  It's sad.


Comment by Donald R Barbera on February 5, 2014 at 10:45am

The police got away with it in Philadelphia, Mississippi when three Civil Rights workers were killed and buried in landfill. The first time, all of the defendants were acquitted. However, the Justice Department later came back and convicted all of them. With the exception of a preacher who led the lynching the party. One juror couldn't bring herself to convict a preacher. However, he was arrested again and found guilty and sent to prison in his old age. I think he was 70 when they caught up to him.

Comment by Michael Penn on February 5, 2014 at 9:51am

This was very informative. I had forgotten but it makes you wonder how the police got away with it, and who might have told them to use such force. Did someone actually think they would turn around and reverse the Civil Rights Act? What was all of this really for, and what keeps it from happening all over again today?



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