Sunday, November 18, 2007

Orangeburg Massacre governor dies

Former South Carolina Governor Robert E. McNair, age 83, died Saturday in Charleston. He was born in Hell Hole Swamp in Berkley County, served in WWII, the House and the Senate.

McNair was Democratic governor during the tumultuous Civil Rights era, and famously sent the National Guard into Orangeburg, SC in 1968:

Although South Carolina avoided the level of bloodshed seen in Alabama and other Southern states during the civil rights movement, an incident at South Carolina State University in February 1968 weighed heavily on McNair, he told his biographer and former speechwriter, Philip Grose.

McNair, a Democrat, was governor during what would come to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Three students were shot to death by state troopers and 27 were injured on the S.C. State campus following two days of protests over a segregated bowling alley.

McNair had sent troopers and members of the National Guard to Orangeburg to keep the protests peaceful.

In a biography Grose published last year, "South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights," McNair took responsibility for the massacre.

"The fact that I was governor at the time placed the mantle of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and I have borne that responsibility with all the heaviness it entails for all those years," he is quoted as saying.

Left: The victims of the Orangeburg Massacre, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith. There were also 27 other young people wounded.

Many folks, I have discovered, are completely unfamiliar with the Orangeburg Massacre:
On the night of February 8th, 1968, officers of the law opened fire on protesting students on the campus of South Carolina State College at Orangeburg. When the shooting stopped, three young men were dead and twenty-seven other students, male and female, were seriously wounded. What had begun as an attempt by peaceful young people to use the facilities of a local bowling alley had become a violent confrontation between aroused students and the coercive power of the state. This tragedy was the first of its kind on any American college campus and became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

When gunfire felled students again two years later at Kent State University in Ohio, banner headlines carried the news to every corner of the globe. But the Orangeburg tragedy prompted little news coverage in national media, and most of that was superficial and distorted. The victims at Kent State were white students protesting an unpopular war. At Orangeburg, the dead and wounded were black students seeking equal treatmewnt and opprtunity. Most reporters were willing to accept without question the “official version” peddled by state and federal authorities on the scene. The students, parents, the president of the college, and members of the faculty had a different story to tell, but no one wanted to hear.

Orangeburg Massacre - Wikipedia
Historic Places of the Civil Rights movement: SCSU Historical District, Orangeburg

Listening to: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - Mary, Mary
via FoxyTunes


Frank Beacham said...

Did Robert McNair Really Take "Responsibility" for the Orangeburg Massacre?

The recent televised funeral of former Gov. Robert McNair was a remarkable public display of cultural mendacity. It was pageant of propaganda—backed by a massive choir and punctuated by the horn section of a full orchestra—that sought to erase a state's sins of racism and anoint a 1960s-era politician as the man who led his people from darkness.

"What a legacy!" exclaimed Walter Edgar—in-house "historian" for South Carolina's white ruling establishment—in a eulogy designed to provide authenticity to positioning McNair as a "progressive" in a place that desperately wants to believe its racial problems are a thing of the past.

What was obviously missing from this spectacle was the fact that the former governor spent the final months of his life deliberately distorting and fogging his role in the Orangeburg Massacre, the single most important event of his political career.

In the calculated methods of the astute lawyer that he was, McNair used his advanced age and the passage of time as a shield when he returned to the public stage to address the racially charged shootings in the summer of 2006. After four decades, he told questioners that he just couldn't remember the details of the 1968 killing of three black students and the wounding of 27 others by white highway patrolmen at then South Carolina State College in Orangeburg.

Yet, in the written public records he left behind, McNair was not so forgetful. He repeatedly retold stories and recounted "facts" long ago proven not to be true. He even signed an affidavit stating that he had carefully reviewed his statements for accuracy only three years before his death.

To members of South Carolina's news media, the former governor blatantly lied in a round of late life interviews. His misstatements could easily have been verified and challenged, but no local journalist or historian took the time or made the effort to do so. South Carolina's media not only let McNair get away with it, but cemented the distortions into the public record in a series of fawning stories after his death.

"What a legacy!" Yes, what a legacy indeed. McNair's was a legacy of telling his conservative white supporters exactly what they wanted to hear.

DasiyDeadhead writes that in the Phil Grose biography McNair took "responsibility" for the massacre. Perhaps it appeared that way, but not really. Certainly not as far as most of South Carolina's black citizens were concerned.

Forced by the civil rights movement to guide South Carolina away from the old fashioned race baiting of the Jim Crow years, McNair turned down the temperature, adopting the soothing façade of racial moderation. It was an illusion that allowed a transitional Southern politician to walk a political tightrope.

While states like Mississippi and Alabama addressed their racial issues in very public ways, McNair helped sweep South Carolina's racial problems under a rug of white paternalism. He equated South Carolina's relative lack of violence with actual racial harmony. That was a myth—but the concept worked, at least in the minds of McNair's followers.

The former Attorney General of the United States, Ramsey Clark, who served at the time of the shooting, told me in an interview that the Orangeburg Masacre was caused by "police criminal acts" stemming from McNair's strategy. The governor, he said, responded to Orangeburg with excessive police power because that was the politically expedient thing to do in 1968. "The provocation for the incident was an absurd, provocative display of force," he said.

"Fear, anger, a sense of self-righteousness to justify hating began to be seen as successful politics," Clark observed. When their tactic backfired, McNair and other state officials fabricated stories that many South Carolinians believe to this day. "Part of the reason they put out these stories was shock," Clark said. "We've got these dead bodies on our hands. We can't take this rap."

The former governor's funeral at the First Baptist Church in Columbia on November was a celebration of that political strategy. However, one ride down South Carolina's "corridor of shame" offers clear proof that great inequality remains between the South Carolina's predominately black public schools -- many with leaking roofs and without heat in the winter -- and the modern school facilities attended by the state's more prosperous white residents.

The "corridor of shame" is a legacy of the old South. No South Carolina governor, McNair included, has fixed the glaring inequality. It may not be Jim Crow, but it's racism wearing new clothes -- a more subtle form of discrimination where coded language and inequitable sharing of wealth continues to divide the state's citizens. It's a culture where words have been redefined in order that people can more comfortably lie to themselves.

During dynastic times, Chinese scholars divided the writing of history into two distinct genres. Official histories (zhengshi) came from those in power and were based upon their accounts of events. These were written by so-called historical experts recognized and approved by the ruling class. Such official histories were (and still are) usually written by the society's winners to record their victories and to create their legacy.

Unofficial histories, or literally "wild histories" (yeshi), were derived from eyewitness accounts, personal remembrances and popular lore. Wild histories, like today's oral histories, have been described as "catching life on the wing."

Robert McNair, with the aid of his personal wealth, influence, and network of propagandists, left behind a distorted record of the Orangeburg Massacre. He did it on purpose. It was designed polish his personal legacy and to help a white Southern society continue to lie to itself about its own history.

Fortunately, thanks to modern communications technology and a group of dedicated individuals determined not to let McNair's effort succeed, an alternative record has been created. Video oral histories by many of the key victims of the Orangeburg Massacre have been placed in state libraries to correct and balance the record. Also available are court records that conflict with the accounts of McNair and his allies.

Though no formal investigation was ever conducted into the Orangeburg Massacre, alternative sources should be invaluable to future scholars who are willing to look beyond media reports and wade through the published distortions to understand what really happened on the night of February 8, 1968 in Orangeburg.

In the second edition of my book, Whitewash, I added a chapter on McNair's final campaign to distort the Orangeburg story. It represents my personal attempt to create a "wild history" by confronting the former governor directly. I think my encounter with McNair helps dispel the myth-making efforts of his allies.

McNair Finally Goes Public

As the Orangeburg story evolved through its fourth decade and Robert McNair approached his mid-80s, efforts intensified in South Carolina to rehabilitate the former governor's image. As the former S.C. State students recorded their accounts for history, McNair collaborated with a former aide, Philip G. Grose, on a book that would describe his years in public office.

Publication of the book, titled South Carolina at the Brink: Robert McNair and the Politics of Civil Rights, was on July 16, 2006. This same day, McNair's oral history became available to the public at the state's archives, while his political papers were added to the research collection at the University of South Carolina.

On the afternoon of July 16, a book signing party was held for McNair and Grose, the only credited author of the publication, in a library on the main campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The event was packed with seeksucker-clad politicians from the McNair era. In the thick air of back-slapping mendacity, the affair was a scene straight from a Tennessee Williams play.

In the book, McNair sidestepped any serious response to the Orangeburg shooting by having Grose rehash a general summary of the story, followed by an oblique six paragraph "statement" purportedly written by the former governor. The killings were "one of the most tragic moments in our state's modern history," the statement noted.

"The fact that I was governor at the time placed the mantle of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and I have borne that responsibility with all the heaviness it entails for all those years," McNair's statement said.

That was it. After almost 40 years of silence, McNair was only going to take "responsibility" for the Orangeburg Massacre. Of course, he was responsible. He was governor. McNair's statement was empty verbiage and clearly designed to be that way. But though he had said almost nothing, McNair's words made headlines throughout the state.

Some in South Carolina's media attempted to amplify McNair's meaning, equating the statement with the much stronger apology that came from Republican Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 and the expression of "regret" from Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges in 2001. But it wasn't the same. Sanford said "I think it's appropriate to tell the African American community in South Carolina that we don't just regret what happened in Orangeburg 35 years ago—we apologize for it."

I wanted to question McNair further about his statement, but he twice refused my request for an interview. So, I did what everyone else at the book signing did in order to speak with him. I bought a book and waited in line to have him sign it.

When I reached McNair, I wasted no time. "Governor," I asked, "the blacks want you to say 'I'm sorry' and explain what happened (in Orangeburg). Are you going to do that…go beyond the book, or is that (statement in the book) forever?"

Slowly looking up and reaching for my book, McNair snapped "I think that's pretty much it. I can't explain it." His eyes then shifted away.

"They want an apology," I shot back. "You're not willing to do that?"

"I can't explain in detail what happened. I wasn't there."

I looked McNair straight in the eye. "So that's it? What's in the book is it?"

"I know what I've been told. But not being there, I don't know a way of doing what people want me to do." The old politician's face began to harden into a frown.

"They are thinking that you should say, 'I'm sorry,'" I shot back.

"Nah," McNair said, shaking his head negatively. "I said I regret it."

He swiftly turned away, signaling an abrupt end to our brief encounter.

For members of South Carolina's local media, McNair was far more accessible and accommodating. In one of the day's more remarkable encounters, the former governor was interviewed by Ashley Yarchin, a female reporter for Columbia's WLTX-TV.

Like most television reporters, the youthful Yarchin clearly hadn't been around in the time of the Orangeburg shooting. McNair, aware that she had no background on the story, took the opportunity to run roughshod over the truth.

Here's a partial transcript of Yarchin's interview with McNair on the events of Orangeburg:

Yarchin: "How did all that happen (in Orangeburg)?"

McNair: "In Orangeburg, I don't know how all that broke down. Other than there were competing groups...a little bit."

Yarchin: "Many in the black community feel it's not resolved because there was no complete investigation…"

McNair: "Well, there was...The unfortunate thing...I said the next morning that we could not investigate ourselves with any credibility. If I'd appointed a commission regardless of who was on it or had it investigated internally or statewide it wouldn't have had any credibility. I called the Attorney General of the United States...urged him to have a full, complete, comprehensive investigation...which he did. And that report I think is available at South Carolina State College. The Southern Christian Leadership also investigated and I've seen parts of that report."

Yarchin: "So people like Cleveland Sellers should be blamed for the deaths?"

McNair: "I think they ought to pass on and contribute to the state."

"I have a concern about some people exploiting things like Orangeburg for commercial purposes," McNair continued. "That's one of my big concerns." (Then...after camera stops...he tells Yarchin... "You know what I'm talking about...writing a book and trying to make a movie.")

Yarchin then asks McNair to comment on the collection of his papers made available to the research library at the University of South Carolina:

"It's a wonderful thing for the university. It's invaluable to the state in the future for scholars and historians. Because, as I say, they can come now and find out the truth about things…what happened."

Though McNair told the press the material in the archives represented the truth, he told me he couldn't remember the details. His oral history, though recorded in 1982, stated in the preface that his words were recently checked again for accuracy. In fact, McNair officially confirmed that he had proofread and edited the documents personally in 2004.

However, by his actions, McNair, an astute lawyer who maintained deep, lifelong connections with South Carolina's power brokers, chose to continue to obscure the facts about what happened on his watch in 1968. With the release of his official papers and the book in the twilight of his life, he had a chance to correct previous misstatements he made about the Orangeburg Massacre. Instead, he chose to continue to spread false information and to cloud the issues surrounding the shooting.

Robert McNair left a sad legacy.

(Frank Beacham wrote "Whitewash: A Journey through Music, Mayhem and Murder" (ISBN:9781591131878). It includes the "The Legacy of the Orangeburg Massacre." More at:

Daisy said...

Frank, thanks so much for your comment. My initial reason for this post was very simple: I saw McNair's photo everywhere on the day he died, while the dead of Orangeburg had seemingly disappeared. I wanted to post their names and faces, instead of his.

I'll be reading WHITEWASH, too. And thanks for the snipe at Walter Edgar, who is on my last good nerve!

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