Many of the peaceful marches and sit-ins organized during the Civil Rights Movement were led by young adults, many of whom were college students. In South Carolina, students from seven historically Black colleges and universities in South Carolina, found throughout the state in city centers as well as rural destinations, still revered by alumni and surrounding communities, amplified the state’s role in the national movement. At these campuses or at the pharmacies and other sites where protests took place, official state historical markers are installed to permanently record these events and interpret their historic significance to travelers and visitors.
Perhaps the most well-known is the Orangeburg Massacre, which happened at South Carolina State University in February 1968. It was preceded, however, by almost of decade of peaceful marches and pharmacy/lunch counter sit-ins staged by college students in Orangeburg, as well as in Rock Hill, Columbia, Denmark and Sumter.
Students from Friendship Junior College, for example, were arrested at McCrory’s Five and Dime in downtown Rock Hill on Jan. 31, 1961, after more than a year of sit-ins at drug stores near campus, and after boldly entering “whites only” sections of the Trailways and Greyhound Bus stations.
They refused bail, instead opting to remain in jail, and their “jail, no bail” decision became a protest strategy around the country.
In Columbia, hundreds of students from Allen University and Benedict College spent the month of March 1960 staging sit-ins and protests at Kress, Woolworth and Taylor Street Pharmacy lunch counters. On March 2, 1961, hundreds arrived at the State House and marched peacefully around the grounds, singing patriotic songs and “We Shall Overcome.” Ordered to disperse, they refused, and 187 were arrested and convicted. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. South Carolina (1962,) the justices reversed the convictions and ruled in an 8-1 decision that the students had a right to protest peacefully and present their grievances to government.
Also in the winter of 1960, in the rural, western community of Denmark, students from Vorhees College went to two drug stores to protest segregation. Unlike the HBCUs in more populated areas, they received little support from prominent civil rights organizations. They met strong resistance and determined the challenge was greater than their capacity to confront. Still, several students continued to protest in other ways.
Morris College students in Sumter walked to the Kress store, Lawson’s Pharmacy and Sumter Cut Rate Drugs on March 4, 1960. Twenty-six were arrested. In Sumter, the names of the arrested students were published in the local newspaper in hopes that the students and their parents, embarrassed by their “criminal” record, would abandon their protests. Instead their arrests became a badge of pride and served to strengthen their resolve. To intimidate the Morris students and the Black community, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross near the back of the Morris College campus on March 7. The non-violent protests continued. On March 15, students marched to the county courthouse, and 30 were arrested. Defended by attorney Matthew Perry, they were convicted of breach of the peace. Morris College students continued their protests into the fall of 1960 and beyond.
The walls of segregation did not begin to crumble until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. This landmark legislation opened lunch counters, restaurants, hotels, theaters, parks, restrooms and more. The law outlawed discrimination in employment, and educational institutions that received federal funds. “White” and “Colored” signs gradually disappeared.
Still, discrimination did not vanish. Students in Orangeburg from Claflin and South Carolina State universities protested against a local bowling alley that barred African Americans. Students also objected to two drive-in movie theaters that prohibited Black patrons and other lingering discriminatory practices in the city.
SC State students tried more than once to bowl in early February 1968. On February 6, students outside the bowling alley were involved in pushing and shoving that resulted in several arrests. Several students, including coeds, were beaten by local law enforcement officers. Tensions increased. South Carolina’s Gov. Robert McNair blamed “outside agitators” and Black Power advocates as he dispatched 50 additional officers from the all-white South Carolina Highway patrol and 250 National Guardsmen to Orangeburg.
On the night of February 8, protesting students gathered at the front of the SC State campus. A contingent of Highway Patrolmen came on to the campus. Without warning, several of the patrolmen opened fire on the unarmed students. Delano Middleton, Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond were killed, and at least 28 were injured.
Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights activist and a leader in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from nearby Denmark, South Carolina, was the only person found guilty for involvement in the events of that week, and he served time in prison.
Today, a monument to the massacre is located on the campus of South Carolina State University near its entrance. The monument, as well as markers located throughout the state, offer reminders of the significant role HBCU students played in the Civil Rights movement.