By Denise Clay
Here’s a story that may sound familiar to you:
It’s the 1960s, a time when it was commonplace to see students taking to the streets to try and change something that they felt needed to be changed.
A group of students from a local college decided that they had had enough of a situation going on in their town. They decided to fight this situation through the non-violent protest that they saw their heroes Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King practicing.
The students protest in the center of campus under the watchful eye of skittish National Guard troops sent by the state to keep order. A guardsman hears what he thinks is a shot and before anyone knows it, shots are ringing out everywhere. Students are injured. Some are killed. The townspeople believed the students were at fault and while charges were filed against the guardsmen, no one was ever convicted of what history showed was clearly an unjustified shooting.
Now you’re probably thinking that this story is the story of the internationally known Kent State Massacre, which happened on May 4, 1970 on the Ohio campus.
But it isn’t.
It is the Orangeburg Massacre, which happened on the campus of South Carolina State College in 1968.
That you may not have ever heard of what happened in Orangeburg is one of the reasons why filmmakers Judy Richardson and Bestor Cram decided to make the documentary Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968. Richardson, who was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in her college days had heard the story of Orangeburg through a friend who had lived it and was fortunate to connect with people who shared her conviction about it.
The film, which was produced by Northern Light Productions, will be screened as part of Scribe Video Center’s Producers Forum on Tuesday, March 15, at 7 p.m. at International House, 3701 Chestnut Street. The presentation is co-sponsored by Swarthmore College, NAACP, University of Penn Makuu Black Cultural Center, Reelblack, [email protected] House, and The Black Professionals News.
The SUN sat down with Richardson, who began her career in filmmaking on the award-winning PBS series Eyes on the Prize to talk about Scarred Justice, maintaining our history, and why African Americans need to join the fight to save public media.
SUN: How did you and Northern Light connect with the story of the Orangeburg Massacre?
JR: I knew Cleveland Sellers from SNCC. [NOTE: Sellers was the lone student charged with ‘inciting to riot’ in connection with the Orangeburg Massacre. He was convicted and sentenced to one-year in hard labor. Twenty-three later, Sellers was pardoned.] He used to send me information about the ceremonies they would have commemorating the massacre. We felt that it was an important story that must be told.
SUN: Was it tough to get funding to tell this story?
JR: For the first four or five years, Northern Light put up all of the money for the research we had to do. We couldn’t get that money back. But when it came to filming, filming, we got money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Independent Television Service. This movie probably wouldn’t have been made without the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
SUN: I was kind of struck by what led to the confrontation itself. You had a bunch of Black students that just wanted to go to a bowling alley. But that trip to the bowling alley led to a confrontation that resulted in students being beaten. The massacre itself happened the next night.
What did you learn about life in Orangeburg during that time while you were making this film?
JR: What I learned is while most Blacks in the area felt that the police had overreacted, they also felt that the students had to have done something for the police to do what they did. It was more than just a generational difference. The adults wanted to take things slowly while the students felt that a change was needed now.
I also saw what happens when the state interprets an incident and there is no other interpretation to counteract it. The state got its say, so whites believed that the police department was doing its job and protecting them.
SUN: How was this film received in South Carolina? What did the people who were directly involved and their families think of it?
JR: South Carolina Public Television programmed it a lot. They played it several times.
But we also showed it in 2009 during the 42nd anniversary commemoration of the massacre that is held at South Carolina State University every year. It was packed. There were about 700 people there, many of whom were the families of the three murdered students and the students who were injured. Because most in the room had an emotional connection to the incident, they got the little nuances of the film. When the credits started to roll, they were giving a standing ovation. I started to cry.
The response was so overwhelming for me. It meant that we had done it right. We had given the people respect and were true to the story without slamming everyone. Everyone had a voice. We did it right.
SUN: This incident happened two years before another incident that got a lot more notice: the National Guard shootings at Kent State University in Ohio. Why do you think that massacre has been burned into the public conscience while very few people know about what happened in Orangeburg? Both involved the deaths of unarmed college students, didn’t they?
JR: First of all, they were white students. Second of all, there was film footage of what happened, while there was no footage at Orangeburg. There were photos, but you also had the police saying that the kids shot first and that couldn’t be disproved. Also, you had people watching the cities burn every night and in the case of Orangeburg “Black Power” had come to campus.
SUN: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You had worked with them before on the award-winning series Eyes on the Prize. As you probably know, there is a movement in Washington to get rid of funding for public broadcasting. It’s a fight that Black people haven’t seen fit to get involved in as of yet. Do you think they should and if so, why?
JR: The argument being made in Washington is that we don’t need public broadcasting because we have cable and cable will do these kinds of projects. Cable won’t pick up this slack because it has to make money.
It’s harder to get things made. I believe that in the current climate, Eyes on the Prize couldn’t get made. It talks about State’s Rights. It talks about nullification. It talks about George Wallace and other “beloved” southerners. You have people celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Civil War who still call it “The War of Northern Aggression.” The people leading this movement to defund public media don’t want these kinds of things exposed.
SUN: What’s next for you?
JR: I’m also on tour with a new book called Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. This is a book in which the women who were members of SNCC tell their own stories in their own words. I’m going to be a part of a panel discussion on Monday (March 14) at Swarthmore College about it. (The book signing is part of a day-long Women’s History Month event at the college. It is free, open to the public, and will be held in the Scheuer Room in the college’s Kohlberg Hall.)
We’re also going to have a book signing for the book on Saturday, March 19 at the Smithsonian Institute.
SUN: Thank you so much for your time.
JR: Thank you. I enjoyed talking with you.