The Divide (continued)

If you were to perform the events of  that week in February 1968, the cast would be complicated and large. First start with students at a woefully underfunded historically black state university and their historically black private-college neighbors. Students frustrated by the pace of change, offended by the status quo. Typical college students in some ways, but in others not. Students who knew about the violence of racism. Add administrators, also frustrated but knowing that confrontation might take the students nowhere except the hospital or the morgue.

Put these groups on a stage with a white community for the most part resistant to change and fed on the pap of a news media and state government that misunderstands the black power movement, that sells them images of violence in northern cities, conditions unlike Orangeburg in some ways though alike in others. And where is the governor in all of this? Governor McNair, who a year before handled a student protest at State with level-headedness and an attentive ear, earning the respect of many students, faculty, and administrators? Why didn’t he do what he did in the spring of 1967? What had changed? Was it the fear of a Newark-style riot in South Carolina happening on his watch?

Bring out the National Guardsmen. Some are soldiers through and through; others are just doing their best to avoid Vietnam. All are from the area. They know the community. They may not be professionals, but they do their best to act professionally given the circumstances and where they are. Hustle in the South Carolina Highway Patrol, some from the town, others not. Professionals. This is what they do. Someone has been telling them that black power advocates are in town. They think they know what that means. And they feel—so they say afterward—threatened by the students. But no weapons are ever found that can be directly linked to the young people standing around the bonfire. Many eyewitnesses note that there was sporadic gunfire throughout the night, but all indications are that the gunfire was coming from a .22 fired from the vicinity of dormitories on the edge of the Claflin campus. That weapon is never found.

There’s no clear reason why the patrolmen loaded their guns with buckshot, none that makes sense to me. And there’s no clear evidence to prove that an order to shoot was given or that there was some sort of conspiracy. And in some ways, this makes what happened that night all the more tragic, all the more resonant. If no one gave an order to shoot—it becomes a last gasp, a movement of the collective unconsciousness of the white community to shore up the final vestiges of a three-hundred-year reign. The white patrolmen felt threatened by a group of students who were throwing bricks and bottles, not shooting guns. They were threatened by a crowd of black college students, young black men and women. They were threatened by an idea, by a potentiality, by a possibility. They had heard reports of violence from cities in the North the summer before. They had heard that black power was in town. They had heard about or participated in the melee at the bowling alley two nights before. Because there was no true communication between parties after Tuesday, there was no real way for them to understand each other and the situation—that Cleveland Sellers was more or less a local, that the bowling alley wasn’t the real issue, and that no one wanted violence.

For all intents and purposes, the white men standing out on the streets that night did not understand what was going through the minds of the students, who in turn didn’t understand the possibilities that those men envisioned. So it was that nine men opened fire on a group of unarmed students over what can best be described as a fiction. On February 8, 1968, Alabama and Mississippi came to South Carolina.

In April 1969 and again in February 1970, when students occupied Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina (hometown of Sellers), and demanded a majority black board of trustees and faculty, the campus was shut down. And in both instances students were arrested, but no one was killed or injured as National Guard troops occupied the campus. In those moments the guard proved that violence wasn’t necessary—there was another way.

Jeffcoat agreed to that original interview if I promised to use a pseudomyn. Later he changed his mind and said I could use his name, but only if he could first read what I had written. So a few months after our first interview, Jeffcoat met with me again at the same IHOP. I let him read what I’d written about him thus far. I sat there in silence as he read, nervously fingering the sugar packets and pretending to take notes. When he was done, to my surprise, he said he liked it.

As we left the restaurant we talked football. He asked me about my daughter. I asked him about his family. His son, a missionary in India, happened to be in town that weekend. I asked him if I could take a picture or two for the book. He wondered why I wanted to include a picture of him, but okay. That’s fine. Later that day, I uploaded the photos on my computer and looked through them. It was noon when I took them, so he’s squinting his eyes in most of them. I’m disappointed. He looks sad, almost overwhelmed.

And then there’s one photo, at the very end of the series. Jeffcoat’s looking away from the camera, and he’s grinning.

 

A version of this story originally appeared as a chapter in Blood and Bone, a new book by Jack Shuler, assistant professor of English at Denison, who also teaches courses in black studies. It is reprinted here with permission from the University of South Carolina Press.


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