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Brian Cabell: Remembering the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre

February 8, 2001
Web posted at: 4:02 p.m. EST (2102 GMT)

three students
These three students were killed during the February 8, 1968, incident known as the "Orangeburg Massacre"  

Q: This 33rd anniversary marks an event that many people don't recall. What happened at Orangeburg in 1968?

Cabell: There were three nights of protests over a segregated bowling alley in a mostly desegregated town. The students at South Carolina State University and nearby Clafin College were upset. They wanted to bowl, but were forbidden to bowl by the proprietor. The students protested for three nights. On the fourth night, while on campus, they confronted a group of state policemen that was backed up by national guardsmen. Some objects were thrown at the state policemen, insults hurled. No shots were fired at the police or guardsmen. It appears that some state policemen panicked and opened fire. Twenty-seven students were wounded and three were killed on campus.

Q: Why is this anniversary being more publicly remembered than previous ones, and what events are planned?

Cabell: There is no particular significance to the number 33. However, this year is the first time a governor of South Carolina has agreed to appear and participate in services commemorating this event. The president of the university has been trying for years to get governors to attend these services. Until now, the governors have either refused or have been unable to attend for some reason. This year, Gov. Jim Hodges has agreed to come out, speak, and even participate in a demonstration.

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Not only did the governor come out here, but also a number of the 1968 massacre survivors and the families of the three victims attended. It all came together this year. I think it was centered on the fact that the governor was coming here for the first time to acknowledge that something tragic happened here 33 years ago.

Q: Thirty-three years later, how do survivors, demonstration participants, and massacre witnesses view those events in the context of the civil rights struggle?

Cabell: They feel that they have always been ignored. Historians, politicians and journalists have not recognized that this was a civil rights demonstration. Back in 1968, there were a number of riots in Detroit, Newark and a number of other large cities.

Initially, this incident was dismissed as just a riot by black students. Wire services initially reported the incident as an exchange of fire, meaning that somehow the students had also fired back at police.

In fact, all investigations ever since have proven that the students were not armed and did not fire back. Policemen shot at the students. In the context of those times it was dismissed by a lot of people as not being important. However, it was a civil rights demonstration that resulted in violence.

Some 27 students were wounded along with the three men killed when state troopers fired on demonstrators demanding the desegregation of Orangeburg's only bowling alley  

It was very much like Kent State, which would occur two years later, when four students were killed on campus there. The Orangeburg incident is very similar to what happened at Kent State. In that case, we had a protest by college students on a campus that resulted in some students being killed and many others being wounded. Yet, historians and most of us either didnít know about it or have not remembered it.

Q: How is the city of Orangeburg, SC reacting to the publicity of this anniversary?

Cabell: The few people that we have talked to in restaurants and around town would like to forget this. These are the white people of Orangeburg. Black folks are happy to have us here to publicize it and commemorate it. We attempted to go into the bowling alley that was the focal point of the protest. Interestingly, the man who was proprietor of the bowling alley when the massacre occurred is also the proprietor today.

He refuses to say anything about it and gets angry when the media show up. He simply refused to open the bowling alley the day we were there waiting for him. His neighboring merchants told us in so many words to get off the grounds. Police came by and escorted one of our camera crews out of the parking lot.

For the most part, the white people here in Orangeburg say let it rest; for the most part, the black people are glad to have some acknowledgement of what happened here.

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South Carolina State University
Governor's Office - State of South Carolina

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