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Orangeburg, South Carolina, students sit-in for U.S. civil rights, 1960
In 1960, Orangeburg, South Carolina was a town of 13,852 people. Although the African-American population numbered only around 5,000 and declining, racial tension in the town was high due to a series of protests and boycotts in 1955-56. Two all-black colleges, South Carolina State College (SCSC) and Claflin College, were home to plenty of potential activists. When students in Greensboro sat-in for racial integration on February 1, students in Orangeburg eagerly followed suit. They formed the Orangeburg Student Movement Association (OSMA) to coordinate actions between the two colleges. Students were aided by the NAACP’s branch at Claflin. Due to the authoritarian manner of President Benner C. Turner, one of the main targets of the 1956 protests, no NAACP branch was allowed at SCSC.
S.H. Kress & Company, located eight blocks from the colleges, was the main target of the campaign. Black students spent their money faithfully at Kress, yet were not permitted to dine in the company of white patrons. The students first attempted to negotiate directly with store owners to desegregate their lunch counters. When this failed, they conducted small-scale sit-ins at Kress on February 25 and 26. These sit-ins made no waves outside of Orangeburg, but helped grow the campaign among the student bodies. The OSMA held nonviolence training sessions at Claflin as it acquired new members. On March 1, 400 students marched to downtown Orangeburg carrying signs with messages such as, “Segregation Must Die.” The well-trained students were somber and respectful, and disbanded when police ordered them to.
In response to this showing, businesses shut down their lunch counters to preempt possible sit-ins. They remained closed for two weeks. The SCSC Board of Trustees and President Turner prohibited “demonstrations which involve violation of laws…or which disrupt the normal College routine.” In addition, the city of Orangeburg outlawed picketing. Editorial comment and town authorities insinuated that out-of-town, possibly Communist, instigators were responsible for the disturbances.
Not to be deterred, the students boycotted stores with discriminatory policies. They waited out the closure of lunch counters, and, when the counters re-opened on March 15, organizers called for another, larger demonstration, which would coincide with major demonstrations in Rock Hill and Columbia, South Carolina (see “Rock Hill, South Carolina, students sit-in for U.S. civil rights, 1960” and “Students protest segregation in Columbia, South Carolina, 1960-1961”). On a cold, dreary Tuesday afternoon, 1,000 students in their finest outfits walked silently toward the business district in groups of 75 or so. This time, only one of the twelve groups turned back when confronted by the police. The rest continued to the city center. They again refused the police chief’s order to disperse, whereupon they were set upon by fire hoses and tear gas. Firemen pinned students to walls and pushed one blind woman down the street with high water pressure. Protesters outnumbered the police officers nearly one hundred to one, but they did not resist arrest or act aggressively, even as they refused to disperse. 388 students were arrested, but there was not enough room in the county jail. Police instead placed them in an outdoor stockade, originally built for cattle. They shivered in the 40-degree weather, wet from the hoses and a steady rain. Supporters who passed blankets and food through the fencing were also arrested.
The soaking, shivering students passed the time in the stockade by singing “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a show of peaceful solidarity and patriotism. Meanwhile, the NAACP teamed up with faculty from the two colleges and local black businessmen to arrange bail for the students. Some faculty offered up their property as collateral for bail. It was ten o’ clock before all 388 were arraigned and freed. The next day, a huge photograph of the singing students appeared on the front page of The New York Times. The article noted the nonviolent and respectful nature of the students’ protest.
Trials for the arrested began on March 18. NAACP attorney Matthew Perry defended the students, who were tried in groups of fifteen. 341 of the students were eventually convicted of breaching the peace and fined $50 each. All appealed, and none paid their fine. Perry defended the students on constitutional grounds, but the magistrate preferred to look at the matter more simply. The magistrate even briefly threw Perry in jail for “pursuing his case vigorously.”
Also on March 18, SCSC President Benner C. Turner firmly announced that further demonstrations would result in expulsion from the college. Even so, occasional small sit-ins continued at Kress through late March. These attempts were met with refusal of service and closure of the lunch counter.
In response to events in Orangeburg, Columbia, and across the south, South Carolina passed a law on May 5 criminalizing “refusing to leave a place of business when asked to do so by the management.” When classes resumed in the fall, the campaign continued only intermittently. A few students were jailed for breaking the new anti-sit-in law, but overall the momentum of February and March was gone from Orangeburg. Neither Kress nor any other Orangeburg stores desegregated as a result of the sit-ins.
The failure of the OMSA to maintain broad participation was twofold. First, the severe response by Orangeburg authorities on March 15, and the subsequent college and state regulations, served to dissuade some students from further action. Second, organizational bickering between the OMSA and NAACP prevented cooperation in the fall of 1960. The NAACP hinted to OSMA that it would not defend cases not under the direct supervision of the NAACP. Due to these factors, the student movement in Orangeburg suffered a temporary defeat. The spirit of insurrection lived on, however, and new actions would make headlines again in 1963.