in little Orangeburg, South Carolina– a small, whites-only bowling alley—Jim Crow’s final hiding place.
So they had their demonstration and, as night fell and cool turned to cold, they built bonfires and sang protest songs to drive away the chill and the darkness. And they were filled with faith without fear because they felt safe there in their numbers, in their communion, because they couldn’t imagine what would happen next.
They couldn’t imagine that the state police who’d positioned themselves along the embankments in front of their beloved campus and down Highway 601 would close ranks like they did.
They didn’t foresee that those shot guns loaded with deadly double-ought buckshot would be turned on them with deadly intent. They couldn’t have guessed that the next eight seconds would push their faith to fracture and change their lives forever.
Only eight seconds to turn the fire’s crackle to the snap and zip of gunfire; the sparkling embers dotting the night air turned to murderous lead ripping into backs and the bottoms of feet as they ran for their lives; the night of hope and change turned to desperation and despair. The faith of freedom songs turned to screams.
Only eight seconds and lives were forever altered and dreams forever deferred–eight seconds– and when the dust and smoke cleared, three young men, Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith and Delano Middleton, were dead. Twenty-seven others were injured, and one man was left to feel the full weight of blame.
My father was only 23 years old, the same age I am now, when he and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped organize that protest. And though he’d been organizing marches and sit-ins since he was 15 years old, he couldn’t have guessed that a night that saw so much bloodshed would end with him, still wounded from the massacre, paraded by the authorities on the steps of the city jail. And today, 40 years later, he remains the only person imprisoned as a result of the night’s violence– convicted of inciting a riot that never happened.
On that night, injustice left mothers without their sons, left my sister born without her father, and left the pages of my state’s history stained red with blood.
Forty years past now. Forty years past since that night in Orangeburg. Forty years since that morning in Memphis. Forty years since that shockwave went out from the Ambasador Hotel.
We have lost so much. But men of faith are often challenged with disappointment and despair.
I can’t imagine how it must have been for him – to see a moment of such promise shattered in eight seconds and know that he was born to an America that allowed it to happen, that washed away the blood and overwrote the history, that has allowed 40 years to pass while the guilty go unpunished.
I can’t imagine how it must have been for him.
And sometimes it’s