The Orangeburg Massacre

The Orangeburg Massacre

Dr. Travis D. Boyce
Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Social Science
University of Northern Colorado

Dr. Winsome Chunnu
Assistant Director of Multicultural Programs
Ohio University

Intended Audience: Secondary Students


The evening of 8 February 1968 was a cold night in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Outside the town's bowling alley, three African American students—Sam Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton—lay on the ground, dead or dying. Hammond and Smith had been studying for degrees at the historically black South Carolina State College, known as State College. Middleton had attended the all-black Wilkinson High School. Their young lives ended at the hands of the South Carolina Highway Patrol, who opened fire on a group of college students who were protesting segregation at the bowling alley, All-Star Lanes.

Twenty-seven other protesters were injured by gunshots during the chaos. This confrontation (first coined as merely the Orangeburg Incident) would be later known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Over time, this tragedy has underscored three significant historical points:

(1) Although similar shootings occurred elsewhere later and caused great public stir, little attention in 1968 was paid to the Orangeburg Massacre. In comparison, the American public focused intently on the 1970 shootings at Jackson State College, Mississippi, and at Kent State University, Ohio.

(2) In comparison to the civil rights history of other southern states, South Carolina's civil rights history remains in the margins. More historical interest is focused on what happened in the states of the deep South, such as Alabama and Mississippi: the Emmett Till lynching, the Montgomery bus boycott, Freedom Rides, the Birmingham confrontation, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and Bloody Sunday.

(3) The 1968 Orangeburg Massacre is similar in many ways to the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in apartheid South Africa. In Sharpeville, unarmed black South African protesters were gunned down by white South African police. At least 69 people were killed, and nearly 200 were injured.

This lesson plan, which is designed for an advanced-level high school U.S. history class, examines the cause of the confrontation, the actual event, and the aftermath of the Orangeburg Massacre.

I. Prelude to the Massacre

The Orangeburg Massacre by Nelson and Bass (1970) describes the city of Orangeburg, South Carolina as "a fountainhead of white ultraconservatism" (p. 10). Orangeburg was the state headquarters of several conservative, prosegregationist organizations such as the John Birch Society, TACT (Truth About Civil Turmoil), and the South Carolina Association of Independent Schools (an organization of private schools that subscribed to white supremacy and separation of the races). Moreover, the town hosted Southern Methodist College, which espoused a philosophy of segregation based on Scripture. But in addition to the white, ultraconservative presence in Orangeburg, there was a growing black middle class and two black colleges (Claflin College and South Carolina State College). Many of the students at those schools were frustrated with the racial status quo.

In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board that racial segregation was unconstitutional. This ruling influenced black citizens and students of Orangeburg to openly challenge racial segregation in public schools and facilities.

Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Orangeburg County continued to uphold segregation in its schools and facilities. For the next thirteen years, college students (particularly from South Carolina State College, SCSC) staged a series of controversial protests both on campus and off campus. These protests placed SCSC, a state-supported institution, under heavy scrutiny from the prosegregationist SCSC Board of Trustees and state legislature. SCSC's president at the time, Benner C. Turner, was under intense pressure to stop the turmoil.

In-class Activities:

Read William Hine's article "Civil Rights and Campus Wrongs: South Carolina State College Student Protest, 1955–1968."

Create a timeline that provides a chronology of civil rights student protests on the campus of South Carolina State College, as well as in downtown Orangeburg.

Compare the reasons behind the student protests.

After viewing selected scenes of the film The Great Debaters (see also this lesson plan on the film), and reading Gerald Smith's introductory chapter to A Black Educator in the Segregated South: Kentucky's Rufus B. Atwood, discuss the role of the African American college president at historically black colleges and universities during the era of legal segregation and the civil rights movement.

Pretend that it is 1967. You are South Carolina State College president Benner C. Turner, and you are about to retire. Write a one-page reflection essay, explaining what you (as Turner) would be thinking. Talk about the dilemmas of being a college president at the time of student civil rights protests on and off campus. How should your successor handle these, and what advice would you offer to the students?

Further Reading and Additional Materials

  • Fairclough, A. "Tuskegee's Robert R. Moton and the Travails of the Early Black College." Journal of Blacks in Higher Education no. 31 (2001): 94–105.
  • Gasman, M. "Reading against the Literature: Black College Presidents' Perception of Self, 1950–1975." Presentation at the History of Education annual meeting, Cleveland, Ohio, 2007.
  • The Great Debaters. DVD directed by Denzel Washington. Boston, MA: Harpo Films, 2007.
  • Hine, W. C. (1996). "Civil Rights and Campus Wrongs: South Carolina State College Student Protest, 1955–1968." South Carolina Historical Magazine 97, no. 4 (1996): 310–331.
  • Nelson, J., and J. Bass. The Orangeburg Massacre. New York; Cleveland: World, 1970.
  • Smith, G. L. A Black Educator in the Segregated South: Kentucky's Rufus B. Atwood. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1994.

II. The Bitter Night of 8 February 1968

The segregated All-Star Lanes bowling alley stood as a symbol of white defiance against the federal government and civil rights laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed segregation in public schools and places. But Harry Floyd, owner of All-Star Lanes, refused to comply. Instead of removing the "Whites Only" signs and serving all customers, he privatized his establishment and served only white customers. Students from South Carolina State College and Claflin College tried to desegregate the bowling lanes. Some even tried to persuade Floyd to let blacks bowl one day out the week, but he refused. For the next four years, students from both campuses resumed holding sit-ins and demonstrations to desegregate the bowling alley and to have equal services in downtown Orangeburg. Local and state law enforcement was constantly on the alert for disturbances in the downtown area and at the bowling alley.

Early in February 1968, SCSC's president, Maceo Nance, feared impending danger. He and H. V. Manning (president of Claflin University) urged students to ignore All-Star Lanes, proposing instead that students might boycott merchants and businesses that supported the bowling alley. However, the presidents' idea did not appeal to many students, and so the protests continued and intensified. On the evening of 8 February 1968, a heated confrontation finally erupted between the law enforcement officers and the students. As the police tried to put out a fire started by the students, the protesters hurled a banister taken from the alley at the officers. Highway patrolmen then opened fire on the protesters. The police killed three students (including Delano Middleton, an all-state local high school basketball player), while twenty-seven others were injured. The victims were, for the most part, shot in the back, implying that they were in flight from the authorities. Nine police officers were prosecuted for use of excessive force; they were acquitted by a jury of ten whites and two African Americans. In contrast, one of the protesters, activist Cleveland Sellers, was convicted and jailed for seven months for inciting a riot. (Sellers later earned a doctorate in history and became president of South Carolina's Voorhees College.)

In-class Activities:

View the documentary 1968, Forty Years Later: A Look Back at the Orangeburg Massacre, which documents the survivors recounting the Orangeburg Massacre, and read the brief articles chronicling the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in Africa (see bibliography below, along with this link). Then, in class, discuss the two tragedies. Talk about the following points:

Compare the sociopolitical issues raised in Orangeburg to those raised in Sharpeville.

  • Compare how the police handled the protesters in Orangeburg to how they handled the protesters in Sharpeville.

How did both incidents expose the flaws of the apartheid and racial segregation systems? How did they reflect the limitations of the protests?

After having an in-class discussion of the civil and international turmoil of 1968, gather in groups. In your group, create a timeline that provides a chronology of the series of major events that defined 1968 as a year of violence and civil turmoil for the United States.

What events stand out as prominent? What events are obscure, or do not stand out as much? Why do you think some of these events have been marginalized?

Further Reading and Additional Materials

  • 1968, Forty Years Later: A Look Back at the Orangeburg Massacre. Streaming film produced by Dr. Jack Bass. New York:, 2003. Available at:
  • Grose, P. G. South Carolina on the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Nelson, J., and J. Bass. The Orangeburg Massacre. New York; Cleveland: World, 1970.
  • "South Africa: The Sharpeville Massacre." Time, April 4, 1960. Available at:,9171,869441,00.html.

III. The Aftermath and Legacy of the Orangeburg Massacre

In the wake of the civil turmoil of 1968 (such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Kennedy), the social protest movement shifted by 1970 from civil rights to the Vietnam War. On 4 April 1970, on the campus of Kent State University, members of the Ohio National Guard fired on a group of student protesters. Four students were killed, and nine were wounded. In comparison to the killings at Orangeburg Massacre, the Kent State shootings received heavier coverage.

The civil rights struggle continued in the state of South Carolina after the incident, most notably with a 1969 strike by hospital workers in Charleston, which gained national attention when the National Guard was summoned to enforce a curfew. By 1970, desegregation was finally beginning to gain ground, and black politicians began to win state office for the first time since Reconstruction. Still, economic development continued at a glacial pace for blacks, with almost a third of all African Americans in the state falling below the poverty line by the time of the 1990 census.

In-class Activities:

View the two documentaries Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968 and Fire in the Heartland: Kent State, May 4, and Student Protest in America. Then discuss the following questions:

Consider the student protests on both campuses (South Carolina State and Kent State). What were the similarities and differences of reasons behind the student protests at each school?

Why did the tragedies at Kent State receive more media attention and national sympathy than those at South Carolina State?

Further Reading and Additional Materials

  • Caputo, P. 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.
  • Fire in the Heartland: Kent State, May 4, and Student Protest in America. Film directed by Daniel Miller. Fire River Productions, 2004.
  • Nelson, J., and J. Bass. The Orangeburg Massacre. New York; Cleveland: World, 1970.
  • Spofford, T. (1989). Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.
  • Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968. DVD directed by Cram Bestor and Judy Richardson. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2009.