By Jack Shuler
On February 8, 1968, patrolmen keeping watch over civil rights demonstrators at South Carolina State College, an historically black college in Orangeburg, loaded their guns with buckshot and opened fire, wounding 28 people and killing three. The Orangeburg Massacre never got much national attention, but the shooting still haunts the town more than 40 years later.
We were sitting in a booth in the IHOP on North Road in Orangeburg, S.C., in February 2010. We could easily have been at any IHOP anywhere in America. The aromas of coffee, fried bacon, and pancakes. The shouts in the kitchen and the scampering wait staff. Only a few tables were empty when we walked in, and I could sense that my companion was a bit nervous—where were we going to sit so that no one would hear what we were talking about?
We found a corner booth, and the steady din of the Saturday lunch crowd drowned out most of what we were saying. Nonetheless Clyde Jeffcoat leaned forward and spoke in hushed tones. When someone walked up to our table to greet him, he cut off quickly. Chatted it up with his friend. Waited until he left and cut back to our conversation.
This was a big deal for Jeffcoat. Outside his circle of friends, he had never really talked to anyone about what he had experienced one night in 1968. There was a lot at stake for him. He’s from this community, and he lives and works here. He knew what people would think if he told his story, if he explained how far he had come in his own thinking about race, if he said what he wanted to say: that what happened at South Carolina State College on February 8, 1968, shouldn’t have happened.
What happened that night in 1968 was that Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith were killed by South Carolina Highway Patrolmen as they fled the scene of a protest in front of South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. The violence was the culmination of weeks of disruption over continued segregation in medical facilities and in a local bowling alley, including an attempt to integrate the bowling alley on the Tuesday before the shooting that ended in a brawl between students and law enforcement officers. Communications between the college and the community reached a standstill. National Guardsmen rolled in. Patrolmen loaded their weapons with buckshot. And on Thursday night those three young men were killed and at least twenty-eight black men and women were wounded. South Carolina Governor Robert McNair expressed his sorrow, but claimed the students had been out of control, were threatening the patrolmen, and, in fact, had fired at them—a charge the students and other witnesses denied. McNair blamed one man—former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Cleveland Sellers—for what had happened. Sellers became the only person connected to the events of that week to serve any jail time. The white highway patrolmen involved were eventually exonerated. The victims of the event received no restitution.
Jeffcoat was across the street from those students, standing alongside his National Guard unit. In order to understand what serving in such a racially charged atmosphere meant to someone like Jeffcoat, you have to start at the beginning.
His story begins on a farm in rural Orangeburg County. Like most folks from his generation, he remembers playing with black children as a child, but he also remembers obvious and apparent separation: “We had several black men who worked on the farm year ’round,” he remembers. “When we would butcher a hog or something, they would eat in the house but at a separate table. … I believed in segregation at the time. It was the only thing I knew. We were taught it and that was the way that we understood fairness. And of course we didn’t have anything to do with the system—we were born in it.”
He was aware of the fact that “the system” was crumbling. He knew there were protests in Orangeburg and elsewhere. “My thing with black people was never any hatred. I always wanted to be fair to a guy—white, black, whatever. I just believed in segregation.” Back then he didn’t think black students should be making such a big deal about a bowling alley, but at the same time he didn’t think they should be shot for it. He doesn’t think any of the violence connected to the civil rights movement was necessary. “I don’t think that it was necessary for those kids to get bombed in that church in Alabama. That was always despicable to me. Even those people in Alabama now who knew about it and covered it up is still a sore spot to me on that state.” But that violence always seemed distant to him; the water hoses and German shepherds weren’t a part of his world.
But when he was called up on Tuesday night, February 6, to assist law enforcement with the protest at the bowling alley, his views changed. His memories from that first night are blurry; things got more precise when he remembered being out there by the railroad tracks between Boulevard and Magnolia on the evening of February 8, when another protest broke out on the South Carolina State campus. He wasn’t far from the students, but he couldn’t see them that well. “But we could hear. We could hear everything very well.” Jeffcoat knew this part of Orangeburg like the back of his hand. At the time, he worked for an insurance agency. “And my debit route was Russell Street. Maxcy Street. Dickson Street. Directly across from the college. And I worked almost five years for the same company, and most of the time I was right there across from the college. And most of the time I’d collect at night ’cause that’s when people were home. As soon as we were off duty that week, I was back out there on Maxcy and Dickson Street. I would park my car on Maxcy or Dickson and walk all through there. And I’m talking 8:00 at night. Directly after going off duty from the Guard [on the 8th], I was back out there where we’d been. And I never felt threatened even then. I knew a lot of the people there.”
Standing out there, a soldier on the streets where he worked as a civilian, felt strange for 25-year-old Jeffcoat. He was a squad leader, and the situation was intense. They had been warned about a two-story house across from where they were stationed. Rumor had it that Cleveland Sellers, the SNCC organizer, was in that house, and they were to keep an eye on it. He recalled that one light was on in an upstairs room, but that was it. The action, he said, was happening in the opposite direction. Jeffcoat and the other men in his squad could hear what sounded like gunshots, but they couldn’t pinpoint exactly where the sounds were coming from. “They didn’t even sound like they were in close proximity, the few shots that we heard. I couldn’t tell if they was from a firecracker or a gun. I thought it was a gun. But again, it was very sporadic.” His men asked him how they should respond. Many were concerned about their duties and the repercussions of those duties. They didn’t have any orders except to assist law enforcement, which never gave the guardsmen specific orders. How far did things have to go before they should or could act? They asked him. Jeffcoat told them, “If we’re fired upon, we’ll return fire. That’s the only case. We don’t return fire if we just hear a gunshot. If we know that we’re fired upon, we’ll return fire. But we never was.” This is the part of his story that he was so hesitant to tell. This is the part of his story that still bothers him.
“I can tell you this: where we were, we never felt threatened. … obviously when you’re in the area where tensions are as high as they were, there’s got to be a certain amount of anxiety. But I never felt enough of a threat to allow the guys to lock and load.” They had full-clip ammo at hand, but Jeffcoat never felt any need to distribute it.
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