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Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968 brings to light one of the bloodiest tragedies of the Civil Rights era after four decades of deliberate denial. The killing of four white students at Kent State University in 1970 left an indelible stain on our national consciousness. But most Americans know nothing of the three black students killed at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg two years earlier. This scrupulously researched documentary finally offers the definitive account of that tragic incident and reveals the environment that allowed it to be buried for so long. It raises disturbing questions about how our country acknowledges its tortured racial past in order to make sense of its challenging present.
In 1968, Orangeburg was a typical Southern town still clinging to its Jim Crow traditions. Although home to two black colleges and a majority black population, economic and political power remained exclusively in the hands of whites. Growing black resentment and white fear provided the kindling; the spark came when a black Vietnam War veteran was denied access to a nearby bowling alley, one of the last segregated facilities in town. Three hundred protestors from South Carolina State College and Claflin University converged on the alley in a non-violent demonstration. A melee with the police ensued during which police beat two female students; the incensed students then smashed the windows of white-owned businesses along the route back to campus. With scenes of the destruction in Detroit and Newark fresh in their minds, Orangeburg’s white residents, businessmen and city officials feared urban terrorists were now in Orangeburg. The Governor sent in the state police and National Guard.
By the late evening of February 8th, army tanks and over 100 heavily armed law enforcement officers had cordoned off the campus; 450 more had been stationed downtown. About 200 students milled around a bonfire on S.C. State’s campus; a fire truck with armed escort was sent in. Without warning the crackle of shotgun fire shattered the cold night air. It lasted less than ten seconds. When it was over, twenty-eight students lay on State’s campus with multiple buckshot wounds; three others had been killed. Almost all were shot in the back or side. Students and police vividly describe what they experienced that night.
Journalists remember that the Governor and law enforcement officials on the scene claimed police had fired in self-defense. The Associated Press' initial account, carried in newspapers the morning after the shooting, misreported what happened as "an exchange of gunfire." The source, an AP photographer on the scene, subsequently revealed that he heard no gunfire from the campus.
In Orangeburg, police fingered Cleveland Sellers as the inevitable ‘outside agitator’ who, they claimed, had incited the students. Twenty-three years old, he had returned home, leaving his position as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) program director, to organize black consciousness groups on South Carolina campuses. Sellers had already attracted the attention of law enforcement officials as a friend of SNCC head Stokely Carmichael, who had frightened many Americans with his call for ‘Black Power.’ Carmichael’s ideas articulated the Movement’s shift from a focus on integration to one of gaining political and economic power within the black community. South Carolina officials therefore saw Sellers as a direct challenge to their power. Wounded in the Massacre, Sellers was arrested at the hospital and charged with ‘inciting to riot.’ Though students made clear he was only minimally involved with their demonstrations, Sellers was tried and sentenced to one year of hard labor. He was finally pardoned 23 years after the incident. The U.S. Justice Department charged the nine police officers who admitted shooting that night with abuse of power. However, neither of two South Carolina juries would uphold the charges.
The Orangeburg Massacre has been excluded from most histories of the Civil Rights Movement. But forty years later, some remember the tragedy as if it happened only yesterday. The film interviews the most important participants on both sides of the tragedy, some of whom speak for the first time about the Massacre. The survivors are still visibly traumatized by that night, while the Governor and one of the accused policemen remain convinced they had no other choice. Two prominent Southern white journalists, Jack Bass and Jack Nelson, authors of The Orangeburg Massacre and historical consultants to the film, discuss their revealing, independent investigation. At an historic conference about South Carolina’s Civil Rights Movement, white officials try to evade discussion of the Massacre, arguing that an investigation isn’t warranted because ‘it is time to move forward.’ However, African Americans insist that true reconciliation cannot begin without an investigation and report that finally sheds light on the many unanswered questions. Cleveland Sellers, now president of Voorhees, a historically black college in South Carolina, and his son, Bakari, at 21 the youngest state legislator in South Carolina history, call on us to remember those slain in Orangeburg with the other Civil Rights martyrs. With a resonance that carries us far beyond the tragedy itself, the film is a powerful antidote to historical amnesia.
Chapter Listing 1. Orangeburg: The Community 2. The Beginnings: A Bowling Alley Demonstration 3. The Response: Lead-up to the Massacre 4. The Massacre 5. Blamed: Black Power & Cleveland Sellers 6. Questions Remain & FBI Investigation 7. The Trials: The Officers, Cleveland Sellers 8. Remembering &The Legacy
Bestor Cram is a director, producer, and cinematographer who founded Northern Light Productions in 1982, a Boston-based production company which produces film projects for museums and for television on PBS, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel. His films include The Special, and Unfinished Symphony: Deomcracy and Dissent, among others.
Having been on the staff of the Civil Rights Movement's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, Judy Richardson now writes, lectures, and holds workshops on the history and relevance of the Civil Rights Movement in addition to her work as a producer. She also worked on the award-winning PBS series Eyes On The Prize, Eyes on the Prize II, and Malcolm X: Make It Plain.
Scarred Justice: The Orangerburg Massacre 1968 is a co-production of Northern Light Productions, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the National Black Programming Consortium, with funds provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sally Jo Fifer Executive Producer for ITVS.
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"The truth-telling power of history is made manifest in this profoundly moving and healing documentary."
Darlene Clark Hine, Michigan State University
"This documentary should be shown in every schoolroom in America. We might then create a new generation of activists, emulating the heroic young people of that time, moving this country towards new levels of equality and justice."
"This Masterful film tells a story previously known by too few. Among its many lessons is the truth of the phrase ‘no justice, no peace.’"