Students Honor State History

Students Honor State History

Story by: GeNyya Johnson and Kayla PickettStudent Journalists

"I can still hear the yelling and screaming," Mr. Arthur Lathan said, as he conveyed the events of the Orangeburg Massacre.

The Massacre, taking place on the night of February 8, 1968, is one of the most tragic and important events in South Carolina's history. Unfortunately, it is rarely talked about.

It happened when a civil rights protest at South Carolina State University turned deadly after highway patrolmen opened fire on about 200 unarmed black student protestors.

Three young men were shot and killed, and 28 people were wounded. The event became known as the Orangeburg Massacre and is one of the most violent episodes of the civil rights movement, yet it remains one of the least recognized.

We sat down with Mr. Arthur Lanthan, a survivor of the Massacre to talk about the events that took place on that horrible night.

“It began as an idea to integrate a segregated bowling alley in downtown Orangeburg," Mr. Lathan said. He continued by sharing that entertainment was not that prevalent then and that they were restricted to campus activities. The students organized a group to go to the bowling alley to get privileges to bowl at the All-Star Bowling Triangle. The owner, at the time, Harry Floyd, locked the doors on them, so the students began to rally, sing, and chant. The police were called and the students dispersed peacefully.

“We were going down there every evening at five o'clock and staying until about dusk, almost dark,” Mr. Lathan said. The students went back on Wednesday night and picked up bricks and debris from a construction site and threw them at a local car dealership and damaged the cars.

“On Thursday the policemen confined us to the campus; they were blocking us from leaving the campus.”

The students sat around in groups and sang their songs and chanted, engaging in different rally activities. Some students then began to pop firecrackers and molotov cocktails. Everything had been peaceful until then.

“All of a sudden you started hearing a whistle, and when the whistle went off the policemen started coming up the hill in formation with their guns and started firing into the crowd of us, firing at point blank range. Just imagine being shot at with shot guns, people yelling and screaming, and falling out. I hit the ground, and I started crawling and I crawled for what seemed like one hundred yards until I felt it was safe enough to get up and run,” Mr. Lathan expressed. Mr. Lantham ran back to his dorm room that he and his brother shared, looking for his brother. Not finding him there, he went back out to look for him, and the first place he stopped was the infirmary.

"I go there and it's people laying all around, on the floor, crying, screaming, yelling, blood all over the place," Lathan said.

Still not finding his brother, Mr. Lathan went back out to the scene of the shooting, but in seeing all the chaos and wounded people, he couldn't take anymore and decided to return back to the room to wait for his brother. Thankfully, his brother had returned shortly before him and was waiting on Lathan.

The three young men who were killed are Sammy Hammond--a freshman at the college at time--who was shot in the back; high school student Delano Middleton, whose mother worked for South Carolina State, was shot seven times; and Henry Smith, an 18 year-old, was shot three times.

With the Tet offensive going on in the Vietnam War and the Orangeburg Massacre happening within only days of it, the Massacre was mostly ignored by the press. The minimal coverage it did receive actually produced inaccurate information. There was a protest in Columbia after the Massacre by citizens who were furious about the deaths and appalled by the inaccuracies reported by the press; the students decided to join also.

“We decided to [the Capital] and get some answers. We got there and spoke on the steps. We demanded to talk to the governor, but he never came out," Mr. Lathan expressed.

As journalists, it is our responsibility to connect history with the modern day. Therefore, we asked Mr. Lathan, "Is there something you would like to say to today's generation who often seem far removed or disconnected from the atrocious things that happened to their elders and ancestors?"

He answered by saying, “You all probably don't remember a time when you didn't have a phone, a tv, or indoor plumbing, and a lot of the reasons behind those conditions were because of the color of our skin. We were not given the opportunities that we have today, and the reason why we have them today is because of the people back in the 60s and 70s--some who gave their lives. That's a point I'd like to stress to the young people. I want to tell them to take advantage of the opportunities that they have because it's been a lot put into the opportunities that you have.”

Mr. Lathan concluded the interview saying, “I want you to have the desire to find out and learn more about your Black culture, because if you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you're going.”