The day after the funeral for Josephine McNair, recent widow of former Gov. Robert E. McNair, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced in its Columbia office that the agency would not be reopening its investigation of the Orangeburg Massacre. McNair was governor at the time.
On February 8, 1968, a days-long civil rights protest over a segregated bowling alley escalated into violence after local authorities attempted to extinguish a bonfire set by the black protesters and a policeman was hit in the face with a banister. In response, white state highway patrol officers fired into the crowd of demonstrators. Three young African-American men were killed, and 27 others were wounded.
Gov. McNair asked the FBI and U.S. Justice Department to investigate the incident. Federal charges were brought against nine white state troopers. However, a federal grand jury refused to indict the lawmen, so federal prosecutors opted to try the troopers on a charge of imposing summary punishment without due process of law. A jury of 10 whites and 2 blacks voted to acquit.
McNair said the incident was “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina” and blamed the violence on black power activists. This allegation was untrue.
The incident has remained a contentious one in the many years since and with good reason.
In the wake of several successful federal prosecutions from the ’90s to the present day of civil rights era crimes, including the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the FBI announced last March that it would be reexamining over 100 killings from the civil rights era. The Orangeburg Massacre was included on that list. But last Thursday, FBI spokesperson Denise Taiste said no further investigation would be conducted by the federal agency due to double jeopardy issues involving the nine troopers.
She told The State, “We did an on-site review. At this time, at this stage, we are not reopening anything.”
In 2001, then-Gov. Jim Hodges said that the people of South Carolina “deeply regret” the events of that February day during a memorial for the victims. Two years later, his successor, Gov. Mark Sanford, issued an apology for the killings on the behalf of the state of South Carolina.
Last March, McNair issued a statement saying, “Immediately following the tragedy at Orangeburg, we requested that the FBI and Department of Justice conduct a full and comprehensive investigation of all the events surrounding this incident since we felt very strongly that the state of South Carolina could not investigate itself. The FBI and Department of Justice did conduct a thorough investigation and any decision to reopen their investigation is certainly up to them.”
Several members of the General Assembly have attempted to form a state committee to investigate the event, but have so far been unsuccessful. State Sen. Darrell Jackson (D-Richland) told The Greenville News, “I’ve never been very concerned with retribution or punishment … I’ve always wanted to get to the bottom of the story, just for the sake of the family members that suffered tremendously.”
The few individuals who have seen the FBI report on the Orangeburg Massacre, McNair included, have said publicly that the papers were heavily redacted.
For some South Carolinians, white or black, no investigation of the Orangeburg Massacre will ever be considered thorough unless their suspicions, agendas, and prejudices are solidified in the public forum, but I agree with Sen. Jackson. The families of the victims, the wounded, and the participants on both sides all deserve a comprehensive explanation as to why the day went so horribly wrong. A state commission investigating the massacre could help the good people of the Palmetto State because what’s remained constant in the years since the killings is South Carolina’s penchant for “he said-she said” recriminations whenever any kind of state history comes up.
That and the bowling alley that started everything is still open for business.