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A History of Killing Black Men and Getting Away With It

If we don’t address past as well as recent police shootings, the US is telling black men that their lives don’t matter.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

On February 8, 1968, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith were killed when white highway patrolmen fired at a crowd of students protesting in front of South Carolina State College, a historically black college in Orangeburg, the town where I was born and raised.

That violence was the culmination of weeks of disruption over continued segregation in local medical facilities and at All Star Bowling Lanes. Two days before the shooting, an attempt to integrate that bowling alley had 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.

And then, on a Thursday night, those three young men were killed and at least 28 black men and women were wounded, most of them shot from behind. Gov. Robert McNair expressed his sorrow, but claimed the students had been out of control and had fired first on the highway patrolmen (though there’s no proof of that allegation). He blamed former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Cleveland Sellers for what happened. Sellers was the only person connected to the events of that week to serve any jail time. On May 27, 1969, the nine patrolmen were exonerated. The victims received no restitution.

A year after that fateful decision, student protesters at another historically black college, Jackson State College in Mississippi, were fired on, leaving two dead and 10 injured. That event was mostly ignored because a week earlier, Ohio National Guardsmen had killed four white students at Kent State. In the balance of things, the official narrative decided those white lives mattered more.

If we take the long view, one that begins with slavery and traces the violence through the lynching epidemic and Jim Crow, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that every 28 hours a black person is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement.

All that’s left of All Star Bowling, the focal point of the 1968 protests, is a rusted sign and dusty lanes that haven’t seen pins in more than a decade. The old brick building is flanked by storefront churches in a withered postwar shopping plaza where the parking lot pavement is broken and weeds push through the cracks. But the memory of what happened there in 1968 persists in the collective memory of Orangeburg.

While writing my book Blood and Bone, I mined my town’s history – my own history – interviewing neighbors and acquaintances, and researching what happened in Orangeburg in an effort to reconcile with that history. I was humbled by the firsthand accounts, admissions and recollections of those I spoke with – like when victim Ernest Shuler (no relation) described his chronic pain from buckshot still stuck in his foot. Or when Geraldyne Zimmerman described the fear she felt as she heard the wailing sirens and cars racing down her street that night. Or my great uncle, J.C. Pace, who was on the scene as a state highway patrolman, telling me that he thought about those gunshots every day for the rest of his life.

I found that, no matter whether it was a guardsman or patrolman, a student activist or citizen who was alive then, near to or far from the massacre, they were all touched by those bullets in some way. And when I spoke with archivists, historians, journalists, pastors, community leaders and young college students, those shots were still reverberating for them, too.

But the story seems to reverberate most for black men. Black student leader John Stroman told me in an interview, “[What happened in] Orangeburg taught me one thing: My life ain’t mine.” The massacre taught him that white people could kill black people and get away with it.

We’re still teaching that lesson.

In South Carolina, there have been apologies for what happened in 1968 from governors and mayors, but when it comes down to it, that doesn’t amount to real justice.

South Carolina Rep. Bakari Sellers, in the name of his father, among others, continues to present legislation to the state government of South Carolina asking for a new investigation of the massacre. Others write letters to newspapers with the call to never forget. And then, of course, some just want to leave the past exactly there, in the past, wishing no further harm to South Carolina’s reputation and legacy. But a state-sanctioned investigation could foster a public conversation that has yet to happen and give South Carolina and this country a desperately needed story of redemption and reparations. It might also validate the concerns those students had in 1968 and that many people still have today.

If we don’t do that, we’re perpetuating the same old lie – that black lives don’t matter.

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