Phil Garber
15 min readNov 18, 2023
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

The Worst Campus Police Shooting You Never Heard Of

Ask most people who grew up during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s what they know about the “Orangeburg Massacre” in South Carolina and the Jackson State killings in Mississippi and they are likely to shrug their shoulders in ignorance.

Ask the same people about Kent State University in Ohio and they will quickly recall the day on May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of student demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine others. They may even burst into singing “Ohio,” the anthem made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

The Kent State shootings made worldwide news, the photos of the young victims printed in newspaper around the nation. The Orangeburg Massacre and the Jackson State killings were just as bloody but they made hardly a ripple in the mainstream press outside of South Carolina and Mississippi while most news reports blamed the college students and supported the police.

The Feb. 8, 1968, Orangeburg Massacre on the campus of South Carolina State College resulted in the deaths of three students and wounding of several dozen more. The Jackson State killings occurred on Friday, May 15, 1970, at Jackson State College now Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. On May 14, 1970, city and state police confronted a group of students outside a campus dormitory. Shortly after midnight, the police opened fire, killing two students and injuring twelve.

The differences between the coverage of Kent State and the Orangeburg Massacre and Jackson State Killings are a stark as black and white, literally. The victims at Kent State were all white; the ones murdered at the Orangeburg Massacre and Jackson State were all African American.

Media coverage continues today to give more attention to white victims of mass shootings.

The Orangeburg Massacre may be the least publicized of all of the nation’s incidents involving politicians’ and law enforcement’s deadly overreactions to campus protests. It happened nearly two years before Kent State and was the first time that police had killed student protesters at an American university.

From the end of the Reconstruction era until the finale of the civil rights movement, almost every business and public facility across the state of South Carolina was segregated both by custom and by law. A business owner could be fined in the City of Greenville for serving a white and “colored” person at the same table.

Nearly every town and city had segregation laws, limiting blacks from daily shopping businesses and restaurants to public transportation buses, movie theaters, airports, libraries, public parks, swimming pools, restrooms, drinking fountains, and doctors’ offices.

In 1956, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.,. authored the Southern Manifesto, which denounced the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision outlawing segregation in public schools as “unwarranted” and referred to anti-segregationists as “agitators and troublemakers invading our States.” Many schools and districts, consequentially, refused to integrate as mandated by the Supreme Court.

The reaction of the state Legislature to the civil rights movement in 1962 was to raise the Virginia battle flag, commonly referred to as the Confederate flag, over the State House.

After the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the state of South Carolina argued that the act was unconstitutional and that states reserved the right to regulate and control elections. In the Supreme Court decision of South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966), Justice Earl Warren wrote in the majority opinion that preventing racial discrimination was a “legitimate response” of Congress and that South Carolina’s intentions were generated from “insidious and pervasive evil.”

In 1967 Sterling High School, an all-black school in Greenville, was destroyed by fire. Many believed that the fire was intentionally set, happening the same week the school had approved for renovations.

On Jan. 25, 1972, the Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville, a black church, was destroyed in a fire that also was deemed an arson. The church, founded by former slaves in 1867, was one of few places African Americans could safely visit during the era of Jim Crow.

The passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 led to the creation of the Legislative Black Caucus in the South Carolina legislature. For the first time since the Reconstruction era, African Americans were elected to political offices in South Carolina. But as of 2020, 44 of 172 members of the South Carolina General Assembly were African American, accounting for about 26 percent.

Orangeburg, also known as The Garden City, is the county seat of Orangeburg County and had a population of 13,964 according to the 2020 census.

South Carolina is one of the worst states in terms of health care and voting rights. The state was ranked 37th out of the 50 states in overall health care, as of 2022. The unemployment rate, teen birth rate and infant mortality rates were all worse than the national averages.

In a 2020 study, South Carolina was ranked as the 7th hardest state for citizens to vote.

Orangeburg is the site of two mostly black universities: South Carolina State and Claflin University. South Carolina State University is the only public, historically black land-grant institution in South Carolina. Claflin University also is a private historically black university. It was founded in 1869 by northern missionaries to educate freedmen and their children.

Efforts by blacks to regain civil rights increased in the postwar period after World War II. In the 1960s, Orangeburg was a major center of the civil rights movement with activists from both Claflin College and South Carolina State College as well as black residents of the city. After the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, local blacks sought integration of local schools. Whites retaliated economically, sometimes firing activists or evicting them from rental housing. College students came to their support with hunger strikes, boycotts, and mass marches. In 1960, more than 400 students were arrested on sit-ins and integration marches organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in South Carolina.

A series of protests at South Carolina State College ended in bloodshed on Feb. 8, 1968, after nine highway patrol officers and one city officer fired their shotguns and pistols on a crowd of around 200 unarmed, student demonstrators at the college campus. Buckshot killed Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr. and Henry Ezekial Smith, both students at the state college and Delano Herman Middleton, a 17-year-old high school student who was on campus to pick up his mother who worked as a maid on campus.

Hammond was raised in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and was known to his family as “Bubba.” He was a halfback on the college football team and he dreamed of playing the NFL. Smith was enrolled in the college’s ROTC program. Middleton was a strapping, 200-pound high school and basketball star.

Another 28 were injured.

Students and activists dubbed the incident the “Orangeburg Massacre” because they said it would be reminiscent of the Sharpeville, South Africa massacre on March 21,1960, when police open fired and killed dozens of unarmed anti-apartheid activists.

The shootings at the state college followed a series of protests to desegregate a local bowling alley. Two days before the shootings, students were arrested for a sit-in at the segregated All-Star Bowling Lane. A crowd of several hundred students gathered outside the bowling alley to protest the arrests, and police dispersed the crowd with truncheons, commonly known as Billy clubs.

As tensions mounted and tempers flared over the next few days, Gov. Robert McNair ordered hundreds of National Guardsmen and Highway Patrol officers to the college. On the freezing cold night of Feb. 8, students from South Carolina State University, Claflin University and nearby Wilkinson High School started a bonfire at the State College campus. Police moved to put out the fire, when students threw debris at them, including a piece of a wooden banister that injured an officer. Several minutes later, the officers opened fire on the students. In the aftermath of the shootings, the bowling alley and most remaining whites-only establishments in Orangeburg were desegregated.

Federal prosecutors charged nine patrolmen with deprivation of rights under color of law by firing on the demonstrators. They were all acquitted after a trial. The state of South Carolina charged one protester, Cleveland Sellers, 24, with several riot charges. He was convicted on charges related to events two days before the massacre. Sellers received a full pardon in 1993.

Sellers’ first involvement in the civil rights movement came in1960 when he organized a sit-in protest at a Denmark, S.C. lunch counter. Sellers was just 15. After his release from prison, Sellers earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University in 1970. He earned his Ed.D. in History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1987 and served for a period as the eighth president of Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C.

For a decade before the killings, students at South Carolina State University had engaged in sporadic protests against college president Brenner Turner, a conservative on civil rights who kept good relations with the white state government by taking a hard line against student participation in the civil rights movement. Turner resigned in the spring of 1968 after a prolonged boycott of classes.

The NAACP had a campus chapter with more than 300 members and was considered moderate. The Black Awareness Coordinating Committee and its 20 student members were more militant and supported militant views of organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. SNCC organizer, Sellers, arrived in Orangeburg in October. A native South Carolinian, Sellers graduated from Howard University in 1967 and returned to South Carolina to teach students about black history. His activism got him labeled by the government as a “black militant.”

Tensions between the students and the school administration increased because of the disparity in funding between the state college and white colleges around the state. Regardless of the unfair disparity, Gov. McNair rejected the state college’s request for added funds.

The pace of civil rights reforms was slower in Orangeburg than in most areas of the south. Many institutions remained segregated, including doctors’ offices, entertainment venues, and the Orangeburg Regional Hospital. The city boundaries were gerrymandered to exclude blacks from voting and from running for office.

In the summer and fall of 1967, a whites-only bowling alley near campus, All-Star Bowling Lane, became a focus of student protests. Owner Harry K. Floyd repeatedly refused students’ requests to desegregate. Instead, he replaced his “Whites Only” sign with one saying “Privately Owned” that allowed only white club members to bowl.

A student activist, John Stroman, intended to prove that the club-members-only strategy was a cover for refusing black patrons. To prove his point, an ally of Stroman, a white student, went to the alley to bowl without a club membership. A short time later, Stroman and a group of black students arrived and asked to bowl. The staff refused and the students sat at the lunch counter but were refused service there as well.

Floyd called the police and Chief Roger Poston arrived and ordered the alley closed for the night. Poston told Stroman he would be charged with trespassing if he returned to the bowling alley. Stroman then informed the chief that the group was willing to be arrested as a basis of a lawsuit they planned to file.

Stroman and a group of about 40 students returned to the bowling alley the next night and were met by 20 officers led by Poston and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Chief J. P. Strom. Poston told Stroman that 40 protesters was more than they needed to start the court case, and Stroman asked the women and any men who did not want to be arrested to leave. The 15 remaining students staged a brief sit-in and were arrested for trespassing.

After the group was taken downtown, one student returned to campus and shared news of the arrests with a crowd leaving a movie theater. The crowd went to the bowling alley to make sure the students who were arrested were not being mistreated. When the police saw the new crowd gathering, they offered to release Stroman and his classmates if they helped defuse the situation at the bowling alley. Stroman and the others returned and were able to explain to students that the arrests were pre-planned. Students began to return to campus.

But soon after, a fire truck arrived as backup for police. Students were concerned because they knew that fire hoses had previously been used in Orangeburg as a brutal form of crowd control. The students began to shout insults at the firefighters and the police moved from the alley to protect the fire truck from the students.

Then a student was arrested for breaking a window at the alley. Police and students began yelling abuse at each other and police began beating students while one student sprayed an unidentified agent in an officer’s eyes. The beatings continued for several minutes. Witnesses said an officer restrained a female student while another officer beat her with his club. Eight students and one officer were treated at the hospital and the rest of the students ran back to campus, some smashing the windows of cars and businesses on their way.

The Associated Press reported the next day that students had overturned cars. In fact, no cars were overturned and damages to the cars totaled less $5,000.

Students returned to campus and met to discuss their next moves. Sellers was at the meeting, and suggested that the students occupy the intersections in front of campus and demand to speak to the chamber of commerce about the bowling alley issue. Sellers’ proposal was rejected. Instead, the students agreed to ask permission to hold a protest march the following day and drew up a list of 10 demands, including desegregating the bowling alley, the hospital, and doctors’ offices as well as an end to police brutality.

Tensions got worse over the next few days. On Wednesday morning, the students met with city leaders with their request to hold a march. The request was rejected.

That night, angry students threw rocks and bricks at cars driving on U.S. Route 601 that contained white passengers. Police then set up roadblocks. Two blocks from campus, a homeowner shot and injured three students from Claflin College who the homeowner said had had been trespassing. Late that night, two white men drove a car onto campus and shot at students before being chased off with rocks and bottles.

On Wednesday evening Governor McNair activated the National Guard, because of unfounded rumors that the “plan of the black power people” was to attack utilities and burn down the city. An estimated 250 Orangeburg-area National Guardsmen took up positions protecting utilities across the city, joined by hundreds of highway patrol officers.

On Thursday, McNair ordered 110 more National Guardsmen to Orangeburg. They were joined by FBI agents and other state officers. A reporter, Jack Shuler, said the arrival of outside officials “disrupted any kind of communication among white leaders, the college campuses, and the African American community.”

By the evening of Thursday, Feb. 8, tensions were ready to explode. Police had set up a command post and around 7 p.m., about 50 State College students started a bonfire at the front of campus. Police tried to stop them and called in highway patrolmen. Students began to shout insults at the police. A .22 caliber pistol was fired from a dormitory over the heads of the police stationed near the warehouse and freight depot. About 9:30 p.m., a larger group of students tried to restart the bonfire, using wood from a nearby abandoned house. About 200 students spent the next hour gathered around the bonfire in good spirits. They told reporters that they would stay as long as the police did.

More than 130 police were positioned near the front of State College’s campus and Governor McNair ordered that the students would not be allowed to leave campus. At about 10:30 p.m., Strom ordered that a firetruck be called to put out the bonfire. The truck arrived with a police escort and National Guard officers.

The students retreated while throwing rocks and bottles. As police tried to climb the embankment at the end of Watson Street, someone threw two white banister posts. One struck Patrolman David Shealy in the mouth. Other patrolmen thought that Shealy had been shot, and rushed to his aid.

About five minutes later around 10:38 p.m., many of the students began to walk back towards the embankment, unaware that the patrolmen believed Shealy had been shot. Most of the 65 patrolmen in front of the students had taken up positions behind the embankment or in the surrounding vegetation and were unseen by the students.

When the first students reached about 100 feet from the officers, witnesses recalled hearing a patrolman fire a shot into the air, possibly as a warning. Other witnesses said they heard a whistle, as if a signal to fire. Students ran, some holding their hands in the air or dropping to the ground.

Spell shouted “now” and he and at least eight other patrolmen opened fire for about eight seconds. Most patrolmen fired from Remington Model 870 shotguns, while a few used carbines and one fired a pistol.

The victims were between 15 and 23 years old and included seven students from Claflin, 19 from State College, and three from Wilkinson High School. Two others wounded were not students: Joseph Hampton, a recent State College graduate and Sellers.

Most victims were hit from behind while fleeing or on the soles of the feet while lying on the ground. Three of the injured died at the Orangeburg Regional Hospital, including Samuel Ephesians Hammond, Delano Herman Middleton, and Henry Ezekial Smith.

Smith and Hammond were both State College students, while Middleton was a senior at Wilkinson High School. Hammond was killed by a shot to his back. Middleton suffered seven bullet wounds: three to his arm and one each to his hip, thigh, and heart. Smith was killed by shots from both sides, leaving five bullet wounds.

Over the next few hours police arrested and beat several more people. One student, Louise Kelly Crawley, suffered a miscarriage after she was detained and beaten while taking injured students to the hospital. Several patrolmen hit one student in the head with their rifle butts while he was being arrested for demanding to know why they shot his younger brother, Ernest Raymond, eight times. Sellers was arrested in the hospital waiting room and was later charged with inciting a riot, arson, assault and battery with intent to kill, property damage, housebreaking, and grand larceny.

Reactions of the mainstream media was mainly indifference or support for the police. Civil rights demonstrations had come to be seen as non-political, illegal violence after major riots in Detroit and Newark the previous summer. The Associated Press reported on the Orangeburg violence that there had been a “heavy exchange of gunfire” and never issued a correction. Newspapers across the country ran the AP story with headlines such as “Three Die in Riot”, “Trio Slain after Opening Fire on Police”, or “Three Killed as Negroes, Police Exchange Shots.”

Governor McNair said officers were reacting to being fired upon, and that the shootings had been necessary “to protect life and property.” He accused “black power advocates” of having “sparked” the incident, blaming Sellers in particular.

On February 10, the Department of Justice filed a suit against Harry Floyd. for refusing to serve black patrons. The government also charged the Orangeburg Regional Hospital, which remained segregated despite having promised to integrate in 1965. On February 22, federal Judge Robert Martin ordered All-Star Bowling Lane to desegregate and Stroman became one of the first group of black students to bowl there. Most businesses in Orangeburg followed suit and desegregated.

Federal prosecutors charged nine state patrolmen with carrying out summary justice, depriving the students of their civil rights. It was the first federal trial of police officers for using excessive force at a campus protest. All nine defendants were acquitted, although 36 witnesses said they did not hear gunfire from the protesters on the campus before the shooting, and no students were found to be carrying guns.

In 2007, the FBI reopened the case as part of its re-examination of civil rights-era crimes, but it declined to bring charges because the nine officers had already been found not guilty. In 2008, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act made it possible to reopen cold cases from before 1970, and starting in 2010, the deaths of Smith, Middleton, and Hammond have been on the Department of Justice’s list of unsolved civil rights cases.

In 1970, the State of South Carolina charged Sellers with inciting to riot on the night of February 8. The judge ruled insufficient evidence for inciting but the jury convicted him of rioting and he was sentenced to a fine and one year in prison. He served seven months, getting time off for good behavior. In 1993, Sellers applied for and was granted a full pardon from the South Carolina Board of Paroles and Pardons.

In 2006, Sellers’s son Bakari was elected to the South Carolina Legislature.

South Carolina State College, now South Carolina State University, has multiple memorials dedicated to the victims. In 2001, on the 33rd anniversary of the killings, Governor Jim Hodges became the first governor to attend the annual memorial and to issue a formal apology for the massacre.

Financial difficulties forced the Floyd family to close the All-Star Triangle Bowl bowling alley in August 2007. In a 1969 interview by WLXT TV, Floyd was asked why he didn’t permit “negroes” to bowl at the alley.

“I have my own customers that patronize me 52 weeks a year. They support me year in and year out. I need no other business…the only thing I want to do is operate my business. I haven’t caused anybody any trouble. I don’t know why these people want to cause me trouble,” Floyd said.