COLUMBIA - Dan T. Carter had just begun his prize-winning career as a historian 40 years ago and was teaching at the University of Maryland when he said he called friends about the shooting deaths of three black students at the hands of white state troopers on the campus of South Carolina State University the night before.
News stories, he said, claimed the shootings, which also wounded 28, were the result of an "exchange of gunfire.""I think what upset them most was that the media had immediately swallowed this notion, and one of them kept yelling to me on the phone, 'We didn't have any guns. Nobody here was shooting,' " Carter said.
Decades later, shooting survivors, families of those killed and many black state lawmakers want an independent panel to investigate what happened. They're hoping the facts will change the first impression many had: that the shootings were the fault of a violent student protest spurred by outside agitators.
The idea of a fact-finding review has been endorsed by former Gov. Jim Hodges, Reggie Lloyd, a former U.S. attorney and chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, and former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney Jr.
But state legislative leaders have been cool to the idea, arguing such an inquiry could cause more division than healing. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, is looking into the shootings at the request of a family of one of the students who was shot, a spokeswoman said.
Nine state troopers faced federal civil rights charges for the shootings but were acquitted. The FBI and U.S. Justice Department examined the incident last year as part of a nationwide review of civil-rights era cold cases. But the FBI declined to re-open an investigation into the shootings because of the issue of double jeopardy with the troopers, a spokeswoman said then.
Carter, who spent a lifetime studying the history of the post-Civil War South, retired from the University of South Carolina last year after a career that included teaching at Emory University, the University of Wisconsin, London's Westminster University, Cambridge University and the University of Genoa.
In addition to authoring a number of prize-winning articles and books of history looking at the South, Carter also has been a consultant for several television documentaries and docu-dramas, including "Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" and "George Wallace: Settin' The Woods On Fire."
Carter said it is not uncommon for people to resist looking back at a tragic historical event.
"It's the same struggle we go through all the time when we try to deal with something a lot of people would rather just forget," he said.
Carter said an argument in favor of reviewing what happened in Orangeburg is that there has not been a "historical reckoning" of the shootings like there has been with other civil rights-era incidents. He also said while Hodges issued a statement of regret and Gov. Mark Sanford has apologized, there has not been an official state reckoning with the shootings.
"I think there are a lot of people who say, 'It's one thing for the governor to say this is not a good thing,'" he said. "But there was not a full kind of reckoning with what happened, particularly after the troopers, in effect, were given a pass on the whole thing and acquitted."
Unlike the shooting of students at Kent State, he said, the shootings at Orangeburg were not the subject of any political or academic analysis.
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"The Orangeburg Massacre, because of the timing of it, was just sort of forgotten in 1968," he said.
Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia said he understands the resistance to re-opening chapters in the state's unpleasant history. He filed a bill to remove the Statehouse grounds memorial to former Gov. and U.S. Sen. "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, a leading white supremacist of his time. The bill has not received a vote.
"I don't see a problem with looking back at things that happened in the past to learn from them," he said. "I don't know why there is such a large segment of the General Assembly that would have a problem with having a hearing on just what happened and getting to the root of it so we never go through that awful period again."
Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Columbia pastor, has for years pushed the idea of a re-examination of the Orangeburg tragedy. He said he still supports the idea.
"I would feel bad if the federal government did what we were unwilling to do," he said, referring to possible congressional hearings on the matter. "I think the state of South Carolina should take the lead on it. I think there is a way to do it without being divisive. I'm interested in closure. I think the time is right. If we don't do it now, we'll be talking about it five years from now."
State Rep. Bakari Sellers, whose father was perhaps the most prominent survivor of those shot that night, said a panel looking at the tragedy would have a lot to look at and many who could tell them what they saw.
"There were 28 people wounded that night," he said. "There were many witnesses on campus. They can look at the transcripts of my father's arrest, the same records the board looked at when they pardoned him. There is a great amount of records out there to be unearthed, to be discovered and to be analyzed critically."
Carter said the debate highlights the two ways society reacts to a call to review a painful chapter in its history. One, he said, is to forget it and focus on the future. The leader of the Legislative Black Caucus, in fact, said some black lawmakers have not warmed to the idea of a review of Orangeburg because the tragedy is still too painful to revisit.
The other way, Carter said, is to re-examine what happened with the aim of learning from the past. Some lawmakers have argued the tragedy could be a catalyst for a larger dialogue about race relations in South Carolina.
"There is no easy way out of it," he said. "There are questions that not only have never been answered but may be unanswerable. My guess is that the real questions people often want to ask have to do with state actions, and those have to do with records that may not be available or may never have existed in memories, which may no longer be reliable even if the people have survived. And of course, a lot of the key people involved at that time are no longer with us."
As difficult as it may be, Carter said, one strong argument in favor of a fact-finding project would be to correct the impressions many South Carolinians still have of the shootings.
"Years later, I talked to people who were not racist, at least not by the standards of the time, and yet 10 years later, they were saying, 'Well it's really up in the air because these guys (the police) were being shot at and they really didn't know what was happening,' " Carter said. "It really reminded me how people are sort of pre-disposed to accept one version. And in that sense, rather than an official apology for what happened, an official finding of what happened might lay to rest these continuing questions about it."
Copyright ©2008 The Greenville News