No Melody, but the Memory Lingers On

By Evelyn, Jamilah | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 5, 1998 | Go to article overview

No Melody, but the Memory Lingers On


Evelyn, Jamilah, Black Issues in Higher Education


When National Guard troops fired on students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, newspapers decried the lethal use of force the left four students dead. Television stations replayed the scene over and over again, and songs were sung to the memory of the fallen students on radio airwaves across the country.

Four dead in Ohio.

It was in stark contrast to the nation's reaction, just two years earlier, to the killing of three civil rights protestors and the wounding of twenty-seven others who were gunned down by state troopers at South Carolina State University (SCSU) on February 8, 1968.

The three dead in South Carolina were: Samuel Hammond Jr., eighteen, who planned to be a teacher; Delano Herman Middleton, seventeen, who was still in high school; and Henry Smith, eighteen, who was known as "Smitty" around campus and mentioned in a college questionnaire that his life goals were simply "happiness and success."

No songs commemorated their memory. No television station, not one newspaper denounced the local police officers who incited the incident, or the nine highway patrolmen who opened fire on the students, or then governor Robert E. McNair -- who claimed he was powerless in the situation -- or the larger community, which turned a deaf ear.

But their memory remained on the SGSU campus, where annual memorial services honor the casualties of the "Orangeburg Massacre."

And finally, as the thirtieth anniversary of the incident has come and gone, the state of South Carolina seems to be putting forth an effort to pay homage to the three slain civil rights soldiers. The state general assembly recently passed a resolution recommending that February 8 be a day of remembrance for the students. The resolution also includes a request to posthumously award them the Order of the the Palmetto -- the state's highest civilian honor.

But Hammond, Middleton, and Smith didn't intend to become martyrs. They just wanted to go bowling. They wanted every Black person to be able to go bowling.

Lighting the Fuse

The sign that hung in the window of the bowling alley which was walking distance from SCSU's campus read, "White Only" -- a reminder of how slowly Orangeburg was in obeying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned segregation in public places.

SCSU students had a history of sit-ins, demonstrations, and activism. But Cleveland Sellers, now a University of South Carolina professor, wasn't enthusiastic about the demonstration that students had organized or the night of February 5, 1968, at the bowling alley. Then twenty-two years old, he already knew from experience with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizations the dangers of public demonstrations at night.

"The first night that the students went down to the bowling alley, the police closed it down," recalls Sellers. "They told the students if they returned again they would be arrested."

The next day, the students returned.

"The plan was to go and test it again," said Sellers. "But the students were arrested."

As the police watched, several students were allowed into the building. They were promptly arrested for trespassing. The students who remained outside returned to campus with the news.

A crowd of approximately 400 faculty, staff, and students from SCSU -- along with students from nearby Claflin College -- returned to the bowling alley parking lot. When police saw the size of the crowd, they released the arrested students.

As the crowd was beginning to return to the SCSU campus, fire engines arrived on the scene. According to Sellers, the fire engines incited the students, who knew all too well about the use of fire engine hoses to control Black crowds.

"They started shouting, `Where's the fire? We don't see any fire,'" Sellers said. …

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