This Day In History: February 8

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On the night of February 8, 1968, police officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina open fire on a crowd of young people during a protest against racial segregation, killing three and wounding around 30 others. The killing of three young African Americans by state officials, four years after racial discrimination had been outlawed by federal law, has gone down in history as the Orangeburg Massacre.

After decades of protests across the country, segregation was abolished in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While its passage was a major victory, many white Americans throughout the South simply refused to obey it, knowing local police would not care to enforce. In early February of 1968, a group of activists in Orangeburg tried to convince one such man, Harry Floyd, to desegregate his bowling alley, but he refused. Several days of expanding protests followed, during which protesters damaged a window of the bowling alley, police responded with arrests and beatings, and unrest spread to the nearby campus of South Carolina State University, a historically Black college.

The night of February 8 officers of the South Carolina Highway Patrol responded to a bonfire on the campus. When a protester pried a banister from an abandoned house and threw it at an officer, the police opened fire. The Highway Patrol would subsequently claim, and newspapers would subsequently report, that the students had used firebombs and even sniper rifles to attack before the police fired; however, multiple investigations of the incident failed to turn up any evidence to support the claims. The police barrage claimed the lives of two SCSU students, Samuel Hammond, Jr. and Henry Smith, as well as a local high school student, Delano Middleton, who had been sitting near the protest waiting for his mother to get off work.

The killings sparked outrage across the nation, but the Governor of South Carolina blamed "Black power advocates" rather than his police. The massacre is still commemorated by the university and others in South Carolina, but social commentators have noted that its place in America's collective memory is not as prominent that of the similar Kent State and Jackson State Massacres, both of which occurred during anti-Vietnam War protests and which collectively claimed the lives of six white students in 1970.