Saturday, February 8, 2014

Orangeburg (Poem)

Book Cover


        South Carolina State College
        February 8, 1968

Jim Crow was always about more than the color
of full lips on water fountains, a back door
to a downtown Cosmos Club. The boys sheeted

in white lent their own hands to a length of rope
already tied, their brittled minds taking a cotton
to the N word wherever fear likely harbored

a spark of violence. In Orangeburg, to be of
the majority — colored — was to find no welcome
most places. That vet come to All Star Bowling

Lanes the winter of '68 made the mistake of all
his brothers before him. Being black didn't entitle
him entree, no matter how hard he'd fought

in 'Nam. Some three hundred from S.C. State
and Claflin College made access their cause,
converged in protest only meant to draw attention

to the wrong. Two females did, showing quick
enough a night stick bruises awful deep.
The students gave offense all the way back

to campus, the shards of windows of white-
owned businesses taking the melee to yet another
level, the governor calling in his state police,

one hundred National Guard in their tanks
and heavy arms segregating the ivory towers
from any roads out, four hundred fifty more

in the heart of town, intent to preserve the peace.
A bonfire kept the chill tolerable till the tension
was disrupted. Ten seconds of shotgun fire

later, and Henry Smith, Sam Hammond Jr.,
and high school student Delano Middletown
were down, more than two dozen others fallen

with the spray of buckshot — in their backs,
mostly, or their sides. Of this tragedy, the first
of its kind on any college campus in America,

the ones with the guns claimed no choice but
self-defense, AP initially misreporting an exchange
of gunfire before the shooter on the scene next

morning said he'd heard no crackle by way of
S.C. State. Cleveland Sellers, long a friend
of SNCC's Stokely Carmichael, an outsider

who'd come home to raise black consciousness,
was in the right place at the wrong time, got
fingered for inciting to riot. Arrested in a hospital

tending to his wounds, Sellers was tried then
sentenced — one year at hard labor — for his role
in the forever-after-known Orangeburg Massacre,

the official pardon granted decades later. Two
state juries let walk the nine officers who'd owned
up to getting off the shots that unforgettable night.

Forty years on the whole truth remains disputable.
All we know for sure is, below the skin of the three
killed, blood ran the same as ours, and it was stilled.

© 2014 Maureen E. Doallas

February is African American History Month.

If you are unaware of the event described here, please take time to watch this brief introduction to the documentary Scarred Justice: the Orangeburg Massacre by Bestor Cram, director, producer, and cinematographer for Northern Light Productions in Boston.

A 57-minute DVD is available. (See the title link above.)

Cleveland Sellers, the bystander mentioned and the only one to serve time (seven months), is today president of Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina.

Journalists Jack Bass and Jack Nelson have written The Orangeburg Massacre (Mercer University Press) and consulted on the documentary.

SNCC was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960. Carmichael became its chair in 1966 and the following year "honorary prime minister" of the Black Panther Party.

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia is at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.