Orangeburg, SC (written by Melanie Eversley/USA Today) -- Cleveland Sellers saw plenty of civil rights protests throughout the South as program director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. When he arrived at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg in 1968, he thought it was time to quietly work for his degree.
On Feb. 8, the quiet ended.
Sellers joined a demonstration against a segregated bowling alley that ended with 30 unarmed black students shot by white police, three of them fatally. Sellers was wounded in the armpit.
It was the most brutal response yet to student protests that would change the nation, yet for decades it got little attention. Now, scholars and people like Sellers with first-hand accounts are changing that.
Today, academics, students and others meet in South Carolina for a three-day conference at the College of Charleston. They'll discuss the black power movement and the legacy of the Orangeburg Massacre. Sellers is one of the speakers.
The conference comes after a 2002 book, The Orangeburg Massacre, by journalists Jack Bass and Jack Nelson, and a 2010 documentary,Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968.
"South Carolina State was the first time ever in the history of America that a college student had been killed on their campus for doing absolutely nothing," says Sellers, now president of Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C.
What bothers Sellers and other scholars is that the Orangeburg Massacre, as it is now known, happened two years before the May 4, 1970, Kent State shootings, when National Guardsmen shot into an anti-war protest on the Ohio campus, killing four. Yet Orangeburg never received anywhere near the attention.
"It's still a sore spot for people here, when you talk about a massacre of students, how it never reached the level of a Kent State," says Patricia Lessane, executive director of the Avery Research Center, which is hosting the conference.
"This was an example of people who were saying, 'Enough is enough,' " she says. "We hear about Selma and other places," referring to the March 7, 1965, attack on voting rights protesters in the Alabama city, "but you don't hear about Orangeburg."
Sellers, who went to prison on a rioting conviction, says, "I think the Orangeburg Massacre goes down besides the martyrs of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner and many others," referring to the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964.
"The legacy is that there were other martyrs just like the ones we know about that got slid off to the side of history and weren't well recognized because South Carolina refused for a long time to address those kinds of issues."
Orangeburg is a city of 14,000 about 40 miles southeast of Columbia, the state capital. Its website boasts it is where 600 Confederate soldiers temporarily blocked the advance of the Union army. It also has two historically black schools across the street from one another: South Carolina State and Claflin University.
Over the years, most places in town had been integrated, but the All Star Bowling Lanes still wouldn't serve African Americans, says John Stroman, then a student organizer and a junior at South Carolina State. Today, the retired teacher is 69 and still lives in Orangeburg.
On Feb. 6, 1968, Stroman and other students went to the bowling alley and sat down at the counter but were ignored. One touched a salt shaker and the wife of owner Harry Floyd, now dead,threw it away, Stroman says. Everything they touched got tossed, he says.
"I hugged the jukebox and I said, 'Now throw this in the trash can,' " Stroman recalls. "Harry got peeved and said, 'I'm going to call the police.' "
On the second night, state and local police met the students. More than a dozen were arrested, bloodied students went to the infirmary, and other students threw bricks and rocks at stores.
On the third night, the weather had cooled to freezing and the students lit a bonfire just off campus, When a firetruck was called in and state police followed, about 100 students retreated to campus, according to Bass.
Accounts vary, but many say a banister thrown from a building hit a state trooper in the head. A few minutes later, about 70 law enforcement officers opened fire with carbines, pistols and riot guns loaded with buckshot. The shooting lasted about 10 seconds.
"When I heard the first shot go off, I looked to see if they were really shooting," Sellers said. "The area in front of the police was all lit up. There was smoke still billowing out from the bonfire."
He hit the ground.
"I could feel when I got hit," Sellers said. "It was a burning sensation."
Many people were shot in the back or the bottom of the feet as they scrambled away from the police gunfire.
This was the segregation era. No ambulances came. With a gunshot wound under his left arm , Sellers dragged injured students to the infirmary. "They were hurt real bad and that's the only way they could have gotten back over there," he says.
ROTC student Henry Smith had five gunshots. He died at the hospital. Freshman football player Sam Hammond died on the floor of the college infirmary.
High school student Delano Middleton, shot in the chest, was a regular on the campus because his mother was a cleaner there and because he liked the grilled cheese sandwiches at the cafeteria, says Scarred Justice filmmaker Judy Richardson.
Middleton's mother appeared at his side at the hospital and he took her hand, Richardson recounts from interviews she did for the documentary.
He told his mother, " 'You've been a good mama but I'm going to leave you now.' She starts saying, 'The Lord is my shepherd... ' He repeats it and says, 'Thank you mama, I feel so much better now.'"
Then he died.
Despite news accounts of heavy gunfire, investigations later revealed that the students were not armed.
At first, Sellers was charged with five felonies, but they were whittled down to one: rioting.
"They convicted me of riot, one-man riot," he says bitterly.
He served seven months at hard labor of a one-year sentence.
In 1993, the state pardons board pardoned him, clearing his felony record.
"I have moved on and I have forgiven those folks who perpetuated this, but I can't forget it," he says. "You don't necessarily have to get consumed by your bitterness and the attitudes that you might have developed in being treated in this manner. I was obviously targeted and I survived it, but I wanted to leave a legacy for other youngsters."