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Orangeburg County, South Carolina, citizens and students boycott for U.S. Civil Rights, 1955-1956
After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, groups of whites advocating for continued segregation formed across the southern United States. The strongest and most notable were white citizens councils (WCCs), which began in Mississippi and erupted shortly thereafter in every southern state.
In South Carolina the councils formed in 1955, with the very first created in the city Elloree of Orangeburg County – a county of approximately 70,000 inhabitants at the time of whom 60% were black. Following the Brown decision, the South Carolina state NAACP branch sent letters to each local government pressuring them to desegregate their schools. In addition, the Elloree school district received a letter prepared by prominent black lawyer W. Newton Pou and signed by 39 black parents demanding the integration of the schools. The city of Orangeburg also received such a petition, prepared by Pou and signed by 57 black parents.
In response to these letters, the eight WCCs of Orangeburg County began an economic boycott of all the petitioners in early August. The councils urged their members to use economic pressure – such as threat of job firings, evictions through rejected bank loans, and business boycotts – against these blacks. The Orangeburg Times and Democrat printed a list of all the petitioners’ names, making them known to the entire community. In some cases, white employers required that their black employees on the list withdraw their signatures and publish a statement rejecting the NAACP’s demands. Failure to do so resulted in firing. In Elloree, such economic pressure – which began in the city on August 9th, 1955 – resulted in 14 parents removing their names from the petition by August 18th.
In response to the resulting widespread economic hardship for many African Americans, South Carolina NAACP branch president James M. Hinton raised money from neighboring black communities in South Carolina to be distributed among those suffering and even gained the commitment from some distributors to continue supplying black businesses.
Meanwhile, students in the city of Orangeburg’s two black colleges, Claflin and South Carolina State College (SCSC), were mobilizing. The WCC had gained the support of Coca-Cola and Sunbeam bread which were no longer supplying black store owners. Learning of this, students organized a boycott of the two products.
SCSC Student Council President Fred Moore also mobilized students at both colleges to demand that their administrations boycott the white distributors denying goods to black businesses. When the administrations refused, students engaged in hunger strikes on campus. Moore and local civil rights leader, Reverend Matthew McCollom, then began a boycott of an apparel store owned by a WCC member in the area. The larger African American community joined the student-led boycotts after the state conference of the NAACP organized a meeting at the Trinity Methodist Church sometime in early 1956. The meeting clearly outlined a strategy, concluding with a list of 23 stores owned by WCC members that the black community would boycott.
Modjeska Simkins, the State Secretary of the South Carolina NAACP, was one of the leaders and recalled, in an interview many years later, strategizing to boycott Coca Cola, Sunbeam bread, and Paradise ice cream. As a result, the national black representative of Coca Cola, Moss Kendrick, was sent to appease the community. Simkins also remembered that Jet magazine published an image of an unused, pristine Coca Cola machine sitting at an oil station in Orangeburg which inspired African Americans across the country to join the boycott of Coca Cola. 1500 local blacks also had a meeting on November 27th at Claflin to discuss the council and the boycotts, at which NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall spoke. Francis Donlan, a local white Catholic preacher, also attended.
The WCC acknowledged the counter-boycott by calling on the white community to shop more at the affected businesses. Three weeks after the larger counter-boycott started, many of the white-owned distributing companies initially supporting the WCC began delivering goods back to the black-owned businesses.
Meanwhile, in response to the student activism, Orangeburg State Representative Jerry M. Hughes Jr. introduced a state bill making it illegal for any state, county, or municipal agency to employ a NAACP member. In March, an investigative committee – South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) – was created to look into NAACP involvement at SCSC.
Fred Moore and other student leaders organized a walkout at SCSC attended by almost all of the school’s 1,500 students in April. The students stated that they would not return to class until SLED’s investigation ended. The students also delivered a letter of grievances to the administration. In addition, 176 of 190 faculty members signed a petition stating their right to belong to or support the NAACP.
White administrators at the college responded with threat of expulsion for any students participating in the walkout, and after six days of protests, the students returned to class in fear of the threat. Moore was expelled from school. Fifteen other SCSC student leaders, including Alice Pyatt, Alvin Anderson, and Barbara Brown, were also suspended for a semester. Some faculty members who had signed the petition did not have their contracts renewed for the following year, and a few others of the faculty quit in protest. Following the administration’s announcement, 1500 students protested the expulsions of Moore and the other student leaders with marches and demonstrations, though they did not succeed in reversing the decision.
The WCCs of Orangeburg County deteriorated in power shortly thereafter, most of which faded completely by 1957, and white businesses slowly tried to bring back their black customers. Overall, the conflict had calmed by mid-1956. The protests and boycotts in Orangeburg county did not accomplish the desegregation of schools, but they led the way for later student activism in 1960, including sit-ins, picketing, and marches, which would help Orangeburg citizens more audibly express their civil rights goals (see “Orangeburg, South Carolina, students sit-in for U.S. civil rights, 1960”).