Monday, April 19, 2010

the orangeburg massacre

As I began reading the book The Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Bass and Jack Nelson, I did so with the understanding that I was born and raised in Greenville County, South Carolina and had never heard of the catastrophe that occurred on the campus of South Carolina State University on February 8, 1968. I knew so little about the civil rights movement in America before I took this class. I knew even less about the civil rights history that we hold here in South Carolina. I am thankful that I am taking this class in my teacher training program because I will have the opportunity to help my students know about the civil rights movement in our country and in our state.
Will D. Campbell is one of my favorite writers. I appreciated his introduction to the book because he wrote the names of Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith over and over again in his litany for their deaths. This writing of their names over and over again was important, I think, because it helped me see that they were human beings whose lives were full of meaning and potential when they died. I also appreciate the authors’ inclusion of a chapter (Chapter 8 – The Victims) that opened a window into who Hammond, Middleton, and Smith were. Sometimes in the discussion of historical events, when we are trying to work through the “who, what, when, where, and why” questions, we forget that real people were involved in those events, people whose lives were important to the world.
This past Sunday, on the 26th of November, several hundred people held a vigil for Sean Bell. Bell was 23-year-old who was shot and killed by NYPD officers on his wedding day. Two other unarmed men were shot, as well. The officers fired an estimated 50 rounds of bullets at them. During the vigil some people shouted “No justice, no peace!” I think the actions of the students in the catastrophe at S.C. State shouted out “No justice, no peace!” In the words of Langston Hughes in his 1951 poem “Harlem”, the dreams of the students had been deferred for too long and they exploded.
I had two opposing feelings as I worked my way through the actions of the students. One was a feeling of sympathy for the students. I was inclined to think and feel like they thought and felt as I tried to understand what dehumanization can do to the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of people. I could see how something inside of the students could finally break as bowling alley operator Harry Floyd attempted to keep segregation alive in his place of business.
I know that the authorities in South Carolina attempted to blame Cleveland Sellers for inciting the destructive actions of the students. I appreciated the way the authors of the book helped me understand the paternalistic attitude of many white people in South Carolina, a paternalism that was evident in the life of Governor McNair. I think it was the paternal nature of many South Carolina white people who would think and say, “Our negroes would never act that way on their own without outside agitation.” I do not think the actions of the students should be blamed on Sellers. I think they exploded because their dreams had been deferred for too long.

I also know that this catastrophe occurred during the “Black Power” time of the civil rights movement and during the “Burn, baby, burn” time of the 1960’s. I do not think it would have occurred during the early time of the civil rights movement.
The other feeling I had as I worked my way through the actions of the students was a feeling of judgment against the students. As they broke windows, pelted passing cars with bricks and stones, built bonfires out of furniture and road signs, and threw burning posts at highway patrolmen I thought, “How foolish! Don’t the students know they are only hurting themselves? Do they think they can win a violent battle against the white power structure? Their foolish actions will only turn the tide of public opinion against them and their cause and lead to their own demise!” This feeling of judgment disinclined me to think and feel as the students thought and felt. It hardened my heart toward them and their cause.
I also know that this catastrophe occurred during the “Black Power” time of the civil rights movement and during the “Burn, baby, burn” time of the 1960’s. I do not think it would have occurred during the early time of the civil rights movement.
As I read our book I juxtaposed “No justice, no peace!” with “Law and order!” Since I am of a white, middle class background I know the importance of law and order to protect my comfortable way of life. In my own time, where there is a threat to “the American way of life” by terrorists, there is the feeling that law and order is of ultimate importance in our society. Surprisingly, I learned about the “law and order” philosophy of societies as a missionary in Africa. Americans move to Africa and in most cases take their American way of life with them. This way of life is built on material things. In most cases Africans lack the basic goods needed for life – food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and educational opportunities. When their children are dying because they do not have enough money to buy anti-malarial drugs for them and an American is living in their community in a house with a generator and a television, Africans are compelled to ask, “Why?” This question causes fear in the hearts of Americans so they hire security guards to protect their material goods that are not basic and needed for life but that are luxuries in life. This fear and this use of law and order prevent Americans from asking the same question Africans ask about the inequalities of life – “Why?”
I think Governor McNair and most people in authority in America during the time of the Orangeburg catastrophe (including the Kent State catastrophe) were like the American missionaries that I encountered while I lived in Africa (and I was one of them) – their desire to protect “the American way of life” and their fear of anything that threatened that way of life prevented them to ask the question, “Why is life the way that it is – with so much injustice – and what can I do to make the world a more just place that is more human for everyone?” This desire and fear kept them from doing the very hard work of working for a more just and human society for all people.
I thought one of the best points the authors made in the book was when they juxtaposed the case in Orangeburg with the case James Meredith and his registration into the University of Mississippi. They helped me ask the question, “How could a small number of out of state authorities (who were not policemen or state troopers) in Mississippi hold back riotous crowd of thousands without using deadly force when a large number of local law enforcers in South Carolina could not hold back a riotous crowd of hundreds without using deadly force?”
I also think another of the best points the authors made in the book was when they juxtaposed the case at S.C. State with the case at Kent State. Why do we recognize and remember the Kent State shootings and not the S.C. State shootings? Does race play a part in this recognizing and remembering or in this failure of recognizing and remembering?
You might notice that I used the word catastrophe to describe the S.C. State shootings instead of the word massacre. I used this word intentionally. To me, the word massacre implies a willful intent to kill as many people as possible. After reading the authors’ account of that night on February 8, 1968 and after working my way through the statements by the officers who shot into the students I do not think the officers willfully intended to kill as many students as possible. I do wonder why they had shotguns filled with double aught buckshot instead of smaller, less deadly birdshot pellets. And I do wonder if they carried the thought somewhere inside of them that if they “killed a few niggers” then they could “keep the rest of the niggers down.” The word catastrophe implies an end result of a crisis that was mishandled. I think this is the case in the S.C. State shootings. From the head of the S.C. highway patrol coming to Orangeburg during the day of February 8th and leaving before nightfall, to the Governor not coming to Orangeburg at all, to the inadequate training the officers who were there had received in riot control, the crisis turned into a catastrophe because the leaders were unable or unwilling to do the hard work of building a more just, humane society for all.

Class Discussion:

I began my comments in our class discussion by stating that I thought the shooting in Orangeburg was a catastrophe instead of a massacre. I said this because I thought the police officers opened fire on the crowd of students because they feared for their lives. I listened to our black students comment that they thought the shooting was a massacre because the police officers fired on the crowd of students in a way that would kill as many students as possible and raise their stature in their white, racist community (“They shot low knowing that the students were falling on the ground!” – “They were promoted after the shooting!”) I was left pondering the question, “How does the color of our skin affect the way were interpret life?”
Cappucine made a comment at the end of class that left me pondering an enduring question as well. Some of my classmates commented on the act of forgiveness many of the people involved in the Orangeburg shooting gave to the authorities involved in the shooting. We have seen these acts of forgiveness many times in our reading – acts that have come from people who were dehumanized and oppressed in unimaginable ways by horrific means. Cappucine said, “You wouldn’t want black people to be unforgiving and seek revenge – blood would spill everywhere.” I think I understand the position from which she is arguing. There is a part of all of us that cries out –“If you hurt me then I will hurt you!” But I continue to ask, “Is an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” the best way to confront evil?” Would black people suffer most of all in a violent confrontation between white and black people?
The documentary that we watched in class about the Orangeburg massacre touched me deeply as I saw the humanity of the victims of the shooting. In the book they were mostly a crowd of students venting their anger against authority. In the documentary they were individual human beings with life in their words and in their faces. I was especially moved by Cleveland Sellers.

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